Debt Collectors Are Getting More Aggressive


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The economy may be getting better, but the behavior of debt collectors only seems to be getting worse, according to new data from the Federal Trade Commission.

The agency received some 140,000 consumer complaints in 2010 about debt collection agencies and third-party collectors, accounting for more than a quarter of all complaints and numbering roughly 20,000 more such complaints than it received the year before.

Much of the data suggests that aggressive collection tactics, many of which are illegal, are becoming more common, contributing to the higher numbers. Roughly 54,000 of these complaints alleged that debt collectors had actively harassed the consumer through repeated calling, up from 41,000 the year before. Likewise, the number of complaints that claimed collectors called customers at work increased by about 5,000 year over year.

Perhaps more striking, the FTC received 4,182 complaints claiming that debt collectors threatened to use violence on consumers if they didn’t pay their bills, nearly twice the number of similar complaints in 2009. In fact, one Arizona family made headlines last year when they claimed that a debt collector had gone so far as to threaten to blow up their house to scare them into paying back their debts.

The prevalence of other dubious collection practices, like cursing or using obscene language on the phone, remained essentially unchanged from the year before, but still all too frequent, with more than 17,000 such complaints coming in.

Each of these practices violates the legal guidelines set up for debt collectors in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits collection agencies from applying “deceptive, unfair, and abusive practices” to recover their debts. Agencies are permitted to make “reasonable collection efforts,” but this does not include tactics like making threats, calling you at odd hours of the day or ignoring your requests to cease and desist.

Last year, the FTC noted that there had been problems in enforcing these regulations, particularly the reality that when brought to court, representatives of the collection agencies often fail to show up, forcing the case to be settled through a default judgment, which results in a more muted punishment.

Some of this may change in the coming months, as the FTC begins to share the role of enforcing this law with the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a group that has been specifically tasked with protecting consumer rights in all matters and writing new laws to do so.

In the meantime, consumers who are concerned about the tactics used by a debt collection agency are advised to consult the FTC’s guide to permitted debt collector policies to find out if the agency is in fact violating the law. If so, you should contact the office of your state’s attorney general to report the problem.

For more information about what the debt collector can and can’t say to you, check out MainStreet’s list of rights that all consumers have during the debt collection process.

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the Credit Center.

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