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3 Debt Protections for Service Members

Nov. 9, 2016
Paying Off Debt, Personal Finance
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Those serving in the military have certain consumer protections that guard them from predatory debt collection practices, give them more leeway in court judgments and help them avoid high-interest loans.

However, consumer complaints from service members to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau continue to rise. The number of complaints more than doubled from 2013 to 2015.

» MORE: Protecting your country? Be sure to protect your credit, too

“There’s a whole unique set of challenges for service members,” says Tara Alderete, director of education at Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions. “They face loss or denial of security clearance and other types of punishment based on mismanagement of finances. But they also have big challenges because people in the military have a different type of lifestyle than others, which can make them vulnerable to financial risk.”

This makes knowing and exercising your consumer protections all the more important. Here are three to know:

1. Limits on debt collectors

Debt collection practices are the largest source of complaints from service members to the CFPB, representing 46% of all complaints in 2015.

Service members should know their consumer rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Debt collectors cannot:

  • Threaten reduction in rank or court martial.
  • Contact chain of command.
  • Threaten to have security clearance reduced.

Keep a log of all correspondence between you and any collector in case you need to file a complaint.

The debt collection industry is rife with inaccurate information, so be sure to validate debt before paying or promising payment. And be aware that overly aggressive debt collection tactics can be a red flag of a debt collection scammer.

2. Protection from default judgments

Service members sued for consumer debt and hit with a default judgment have greater flexibility in appealing the ruling than the average consumer. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003 allows active military to have default judgments set aside if they couldn’t appear in court or didn’t receive notice of the lawsuit.

Further, a creditor looking to pursue a judgment:

  • Cannot win the suit until the service member has an attorney to represent him or her.
  • Must wait at least 90 days between notifying the service member of the lawsuit and proceeding with the case.
  • Must file a bond to indemnify, or compensate, the service member against any damages from a default judgment, such as lost income from a wage garnishment.

3. Protection from predatory interest rates

The Military Lending Act sets a maximum 36% interest rate, including most fees and add-ons, for loans you take out after joining or being activated. That protects service members from types of loans that otherwise charge predatory rates. Payday loans and car title loans, for instance, can otherwise have APRs in the triple digits.

The MLA also gives active military the right to strike the “mandatory arbitration” clause, in which you waive your right to sue, from credit contracts. And it bars lenders from charging a penalty if you pay off a loan early.

In addition, you can reduce your interest rates to 6% on credit accounts and loans you took out before you entered the military, or before you were deployed if you’re in the reserves. Contact your creditor and ask that your rates be cut in accordance with the SCRA.

If your consumer rights are violated

As with most consumer rights, it’s up to the individual to know and invoke these protections. You can contact resources where you’re stationed or seek educational services from a nonprofit organizations, such as a credit counseling agency, for more information.

If a creditor refuses to honor or violates your consumer and military rights, you can file a complaint with the CFPB.

Sean Pyles is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected].