St. Louis, Mo., Dec. 29, 2011 – “They threatened to try and take my disability away,” one complainant said of a debt collector, and another said they “threatened to file criminal charges of check fraud” and contacted my friends saying “I would soon be arrested.”
These comments are typical of the thousands of complaints filed by consumers against debt collectors. A surging increase in complaints in the past few years about the behavior of debt collectors has caused concern on the part of federal and state agencies and consumer advocacy groups.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) in St. Louis released a study today titled “They Deal in Billions: A BBB Study of the Debt Collection Industry, Its Soaring Growth and Problems for Consumers.” The study points to problems in the industry and their causes, and outlines the weaknesses in laws and their enforcement.
“The BBB believes consumers are obligated to pay their rightful debts and that businesses have the right to collect those debts,” said Michelle L. Corey, BBB president and CEO. “But we also feel that debt collectors must obey the law. We hope that the Missouri Legislature, Congress and the courts will take notice of this rapidly increasing problem and take action to bring it under control.”
Among the study’s findings:
- Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have increased 17% over the past year.
- Missouri is one of only a few states without an adequate law similar to the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, hamstringing law enforcement attempts to sue debt collectors for improper actions.
- Debt buyer-collectors pay pennies on the dollar for billions of dollars in delinquent debts that have been charged off and then try to collect the face amount of the debts.
- Income increased an average of 58% in one year for two large debt buyer-collectors.
- After unsuccessful oral or written attempts to collect a debt, collectors have filed suits in courts, often obtaining default judgments, and then garnishing the wages or attaching bank accounts of the debtor.
- The suits are often filed with scanty or false information regarding the debt, and sometimes are backed by affidavits which are robo-signed at the rate of hundreds daily per worker by employees who have no knowledge of the debt.
- Default judgments were ordered in 46% of 900 cases in St. Louis City and County examined in the study.
- The FTC, General Accountability Office (GAO) and consumer advocacy groups have called for numerous reforms, including amending the 33-year-old FDCPA.
- In the past three years, three large debt buyer-collectors have filed as a creditor in 221,757 Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases nationally, 6,478 of them in Missouri and 11,666 in Illinois. They presumably seek the face value of the debt for which they paid pennies.
The study notes that in 1995, debt buyers purchased debts with a face value of $12 billion. By 2008, that figure vaulted to an estimated $215 billion.
The study concludes: “The meteoric growth of the debt buying and selling industry shares a portion of the blame for the soaring increase in complaints and the plethora of calls for reform by government agencies and consumer advocacy groups. Other reasons for skyrocketing complaint numbers may be the downturn in the economy, an extension of unsustainable credit and the ever increasing indebtedness of the American public.”
The study recommends:
- That consumers work with their creditors if facing the inability to make payments on a debt.
- That consumers check with reputable non-profit organizations for counseling regarding any indebtedness beyond their means.
- That consumers respond to a court summons regarding a debt, even if it’s a debt not owed. Doing so will eliminate problems that would arise later.
- That consumers file complaints with the BBB and FTC regarding improper or illegal activity on the part of a debt collector.
- That the Missouri Legislature join the vast majority of states in enacting its own Fair Debt Collection Practices Act modeled after the federal act. Such action would allow law enforcement officials to sue debt collectors for alleged violations.
- That the Missouri Legislature, Supreme Court and/or the state’s circuit courts enact legislation or adopt rules to prevent default judgments being entered based on insufficient or false information. As recommended by the FTC, such legislation or rules should require that a petition include at minimum:
- The name of the original creditor and the last four digits of the original account number.
- The date of default or charge-off and the amount due at that time.
- The name of the current owner of the debt.
- The total amount currently owed on the debt.
- The total amount owed broken down by principal, interest, and fees.
- The relevant terms of the underlying credit contract.
- That the Missouri Legislature enact a full disclosure law requiring debt collectors trying to collect on a time-barred debt to tell consumers that the debt is time-barred and any payment may reset the statute of limitations.
- That Congress consider the many changes urged by the FTC, GAO and consumer advocacy groups to amend the 33-year-old FDCPA.
- That businesses closely monitor the activities of agencies they hire to collect on delinquent accounts.
- That debt collector trade associations monitor the activities of their members more closely, including imposing penalties for proven violations of laws.
The study is available online at: http://stlouis.bbb.org/Storage/142/Documents/Bill%20Collector%20Study%20(FINAL%20WITH%20CHANGES)%2012%2027%202011.pdf
Michelle Corey, President & CEO, 314-584-6800, firstname.lastname@example.org
, or Chris Thetford, Vice President-Communications, 314-584-6743 or 314-681-4719 (cell), email@example.com