The Buffalo News has run two articles highly critical of the local debt collection industry. The first article, “Merchants of Debt,”focuses on the large collection industry presence in the area. Many of the complaints made by consumers about collectors are against firms located in Buffalo, which is a major hub of the collection industry.
The article quotes Federal Trade Commission official Peggy L. Twohig as saying, “The whole nature of the industry is there are incentives to be aggressive.” Talk about understatement! The $1,000 federal penalty for violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act has not changed in decades. Many agencies view the occasional fine as a cost of doing business. Meanwhile, the amount of debt available for such agencies to work has grown enormously in recent years.
Collection industry spokespersons routinely claim that many of the complaints are groundless and that real abuses only happen in a small percentage of the cases. Yet ex-collectors say that the pressure to produce is always top priority, while managers look the other way on compliance issues.
Some of the worst offenses seem to be by collection law firms. Lenahan Law Offices went bankrupt last December under the weight of regulatory fines. And Giove Law Office was banned from collecting debt in Idaho for threatening debtors with criminal charges. But non-attorney agencies have also come under fire. Top industry agency NCO Financial paid $300,000 in a settlement with Pennsylvania’s Attorney General to resolve more than 800 complaints against the firm.
The second article, “Wide-Open Market for Debts Feeds Abusive Tactics,” focuses more on the industry practice of purchasing delinquent debts for pennies on the dollar and then dunning debtors to make a profit. In the past, debt purchasing was not as common as it has become in recent years. Banks would continue to retain ownership of the debt and hire third-party collection agencies on a commission basis. Since the banks did not want their own reputations damaged by abusive collection tactics, there was at least some oversight to maintain compliance. Now, however, it’s more common for the bank to sell off bad debts and turn a blind eye to collection tactics. The courts have ruled in several cases that banks are not liable for collection activity that occurs after the debt has been sold. So it’s open season for debt purchasers.
I personally do not object to the concept of debt purchasing or even third-party debt collection. I happen to think that the debt collection industry provides a necessary function in our economy. I do feel, however, that regulations need to be enforced to a much greater degree than they are at present. In addition, tighter rules need to be established for the collection of purchased debt. That end of the industry is the main source of the increase in consumer complaints. More than 40% of the complaints received by the FTC about debt collectors allege that consumers were being harassed over debts they did not owe. That’s not surprising, given that purchased debt is often several years old. Junk debt comes with very little documentation. Often, the purchaser takes a shotgun approach and duns everyone in the nearby area with the same name that’s on the account. Stories are multiplying about people being hassled and threatened over debts that aren’t theirs in the first place.
It’s clearly time for Congress to take a fresh look the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, with an eye to increasing penalties for violations, and the addition of rules that pertain to debt purchasing.
J. Mesina says
I believe that the new trend by creditors to sell their debts after getting the tax benefit of charge offs is a method of double dipping, and should be restricted. Creditors get the tax benefit, plus they make money off the sale of the debt. The collection agent gets to collect the entire amount, and this amount is pure profit which is never returned to the original creditor–how is accounting methodology justified to the ecomony, or to consumers?
After selling the debt, the original creditor will never accept payment in full from the debtor, only refer them to the collection agent. How is this fair to the consumer that wishes to pay their debt, but does not want to deal with debt collectors especially when it is impossible to know who owns the debt after it has been sold so many times? Ny selling off the debt, the original creditor gets all the benefits; tax breaks, revenue from the sale, unloading the customer from its customer service rolls, and all the legal benefits of being absolved from illegal debt collection practices. This appears to be a win-win for the creditor, and a loose-loose for the consumer. The system seems to be designed to force people into bankruptcy, rather than have them responsibly pay off a debt directly to the creditor. The sale of debt should be restricted, or it should be mandatory for an original creditor to accept payment from a consumer who wishes to settle in full at any time.