Three out of four consumers said debt collectors ignored their requests to stop calling, according to a survey released Thursday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which detailed “troubling” practices in the multibillion-dollar industry.
Despite specific protections outlined in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, consumers told the CFPB that they often felt threatened by debt collectors, were contacted late at night or early in the morning, and were pursued by collectors using incorrect information.
Debt-collection efforts affect more than 70 million Americans annually and are one of the leading sources of consumer complaints to the CFPB.
Survey finds widespread complaints
The CFPB survey, conducted between December 2014 and March 2015 about debt collection experiences from about a year before the survey was conducted, looked at a sample of consumers drawn from credit-reporting records about their experiences with debt collectors. It found:
- More than one in four consumers contacted by a creditor or debt collector felt threatened.
- Three in four consumers who asked collectors to cease communication said the request wasn’t honored.
- More than a third said debt collectors called between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.
- More than half reported a mistake in the debt, such as an incorrect amount, a debt not owed or a debt owed by a family member.
- Of consumers contacted about a debt, 15% were sued for payment. About 75% of sued consumers did not show up in court, which can result in an automatic judgment and wage garnishment.
- Nearly 40% of consumers reported being contacted four or more times a week by a debt collector. And 17% said they got eight or more calls in a week.
“This is another example of why we need the CFPB,” said Liz Weston, NerdWallet columnist and certified financial planner. “Collection agencies continue to flout fair debt collection laws with bad practices and sloppy record-keeping. The CFPB is the one agency that’s been pushing to reform the industry so that it doesn’t trample vulnerable consumers in its rush for profit.”
Consumers have rights, but there’s a catch
Consumers are protected from these predatory and unfair practices by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Among its protections:
- Communication: Consumers can tell debt collectors how and when to communicate — including telling them to stop contacting them altogether.
- Harassment and abuse: Debt collectors cannot use abusive language, threaten violence or use repeated calls to harass.
- Truthfulness: Debt collectors must be honest about the amount of the debt and whether it’s past the statute of limitations for lawsuits, and cannot misrepresent themselves.
- Debt validation: Consumers must receive a validation letter within five days of first contact with information about the amount owed, who’s seeking payment and their rights on disputing the debt.
The catch: It’s up to consumers to exercise these rights on their own.
“My first tip for consumers is to really slow down and evaluate the person who is calling them about the debt,” said April Kuehnhoff, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “Ask for more information to make sure they recognize the debt, that they believe it’s theirs and that they know who this party is who’s contacting them.”
If a debt collector calls to pressure you to make a payment and makes you feel threatened or unsafe, simply hang up. Don’t feel rushed to make a payment, Kuehnhoff said.
Consumers can file complaints directly with the CFPB on its website if they believe their consumer rights have been violated.
Online selling of debts puts consumer data at risk
The CFPB simultaneously released a snapshot of the market where third-party debt collectors can buy debts that original creditors were unable to collect, sometimes putting the information on online sites such as DebtConnection.com and Debtselling.net. Buyers have the legal right to attempt to collect the amount of the original debt — and to resell it again if they don’t succeed.
The agency reviewed 298 bundles of debts available from online marketplaces from January 2015 to August 2015. The bundles contained financial details — names and often Social Security numbers, street addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and account numbers — from more than 1.2 million consumers, the bureau said.
The face value of the debts was nearly $2 billion, the CFPB said, but the asking prices totaled about $18 million, or less than a penny on the dollar. Nearly half the debts stemmed from payday loans and about a quarter came from credit cards. The websites also offer portfolios of medical debts, cell phone accounts and bad checks.
Most of the debt is 5 years old or older, and much of it has been subject to several collection attempts already, the CFPB said.
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