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Consumers Report Being Hounded About Debts Not Owed

Top Debt Collection Complaints Also Include Aggressive Communication Tactics and Threatening Illegal Actions

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today issued a report on the more than 30,000 consumer complaints it has received about the debt collection market. The report finds that many consumers complain that they are being hounded by debt collectors about debts they do not owe. Top complaints also include debt collectors’ use of aggressive communication tactics and threats of illegal actions.

“Consumers should never be hounded about debts they do not owe,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We will not tolerate companies harassing consumers or threatening illegal actions in the debt collection market. We will continue to work hard to ensure that consumers are treated with dignity and fairness.”

Debt collection is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is estimated that there are more than 4,500 debt collection firms nationwide. Banks and other original creditors may collect their own debts or hire third-party debt collectors. Original creditors and other debt owners also may sell their debts to debt buyers. Debt buyers may sell the debt, collect the debt themselves, or hire third-party debt collectors to do so.

Approximately 30 million Americans had, on average, $1,400 of debt subject to collection in 2013. The main law that governs the industry and protects consumers is the 1977 Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank) revised the FDCPA, making the Bureau the first agency with the power to issue substantive rules under the statute. Today’s annual report to Congress highlights the Bureau’s efforts to carry out the FDCPA.

Consumer Complaints

The Bureau began accepting debt collection complaints in July 2013. These complaints quickly became the largest source of complaints each month. The Bureau received 30,300 debt collection complaints between July and December 2013. Companies have already responded to about 82 percent of the complaints the Bureau has sent to them for a response in that time frame. The top three complaints were about:

  • Collectors hounding consumers about a debt they do not owe: More than one-third of the complaints the CFPB handled were about a debt collector continually attempting to collect a debt that the consumer does not believe is owed. Of these complaints, almost two-thirds of consumers report that the debt is not theirs, while others report that the debt was paid, was the result of identity theft, or was discharged in bankruptcy.
  • Aggressive communication tactics used by debt collectors: Nearly a quarter of the complaints received by the Bureau were about debt collectors using inappropriate communication tactics. More than half of those complaints cite frequent or repeated calls from a collector and often the collector is calling the wrong phone number. Consumers also complain about debt collectors calling their places of employment or collectors using obscene, profane, or abusive language.
  • Taking or threatening an illegal action: About 14 percent of consumers report that a company is taking or threatening an illegal action. Most of these complaints are about threats to arrest or jail consumers if they do not pay. Other complaints relate to collectors threating to sue or attempting to seize property.

CFPB Advances in Debt Collection Market in 2013

The CFPB took several important steps to protect consumers and create a level playing field for law-abiding debt collectors in 2013. The Bureau’s larger participant rule for debt collection became effective on January 2, 2013. Under this rule, the Bureau has supervisory authority over any firm with more than $10 million in annual receipts from consumer debt collection activities, which extends to about 175 debt collection companies.

In November 2013, the Bureau took the first step toward considering consumer protection rules for the debt collection market with an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR). Through this ANPR, the Bureau is collecting information on a wide array of issues, including the accuracy of information used by debt collectors, how to ensure consumers know their rights, and the communication tactics collectors employ to recover debts. The Bureau can use the information it gathers to inform future rulemaking.

The Bureau also pursued two debt collection enforcement actions in 2013. The Bureau sued an online loan servicer, CashCall Inc., its owner, its subsidiary, and its affiliate, for collecting money on loans that were legally invalid. The Bureau also ordered payday lender, Cash America International, Inc. to refund up to $14 million to consumers for robo-signing court documents in debt collection lawsuits. Through its ongoing supervision and enforcement activities, the Bureau will continue to prevent and deter debt collectors from violating the law.

The Bureau issued sample letters consumers can use in dealing with debt collectors. These letters may help consumers obtain valuable information about claims being made against them or may help consumers protect themselves from inappropriate or unwanted collection activities. And the Bureau’s interactive online tool, Ask CFPB, contains more than 85 questions and answers related to the topic of debt collection.

A copy of today’s report is available at: http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201403_cfpb_fair-debt-collection-practices-act.pdf

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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a 21st century agency that helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives. For more information, visit consumerfinance.gov.

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