This article first appeared in OtherWords
Have you ever picked up your phone to find an aggressive voice on the other end demanding payments on a debt you know nothing about? You’re far from alone.
Once you’re in the sights of a debt collector, the impact on your life can be devastating: Your wages can be garnished and your credit ruined. You might lose your driver’s license, or even your job.
And it could happen over a debt you don’t even owe.
In a recent analysis of 75,000 complaints about debt collection practices submitted to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — just a sample of the total number — this was the most common complaint by far. Over 40 percent of people being harassed by collectors said they didn’t owe the debt in the first place.
Other complaints charged that the collectors made false statements or threats to coerce people to pay.
The government created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — or CFPB — to address abusive financial practices after the 2008 financial crash. This year, the bureau is considering strengthening rules to protect consumers from deceptive and aggressive collection practices.
Abusive collection tactics impact people with all kinds of debt — including credit card debt, medical debt, payday loans, student loans, mortgages, and automobile loans. Collectors often strike when people are most vulnerable, such as when they’re recovering from illness or desperately seeking work. They aggressively target the poor, immigrants, and people of color.
About 77 million people — or 35 percent of adults in the United States with a credit file — have a report of debt in collections. That alone makes a compelling case for the bureau to crack down on abusive tactics.
When my organization, the Alliance for a Just Society, analyzed the complaints for ournew report — Unfair, Deceptive, & Abusive: Debt Collectors Profit from Aggressive Tactics — we tallied the complaints in the database and built a list of the 15 companies with the most complaints.
The list is topped by heavy-hitting debt buyers like Encore Capital Group and PRA Group, whose business models hinge on buying portfolios of consumer debts for pennies on the dollar and then wringing payments out of alleged debtors. Both of these companies more than doubled their profits from 2010 to 2014.
Major student loan servicer Navient (formerly Sallie Mae) also makes the top 15 list for complaints about its debt collection tactics.
But it’s particularly worth noting that six out of the top 15 offenders on this list are original creditors, not third-party collectors. They include Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Synchrony Financial (the largest issuer of private label credit cards).
This is important, because the primary protection most consumers have against unfair collection tactics — the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act — applies only to third parties, not original creditors. This is a troubling double standard.
The new rules must also to apply to the original creditors — including payday lenders, credit card companies, and big banks — along with third-party collectors and debt buyers.
The rules should limit phone calls to prevent harassment and require collectors to have complete documentation before attempting to collect. The rules should prohibit selling, purchasing, and attempting to collect old, paid, or expired “zombie” debt.
Finally, the bureau should toughen the penalties for collectors breaking the rules.
Living with debt isn’t a personal failing — it’s a national crisis. The bureau needs to stand up for everyday people and put a stop to abusive collection tactics.