By TARA SIEGEL BERNARD | New York Times – 8 hours ago
The Federal Trade Commission signaled on Monday that it would continue to crack down on debt collectors who harass consumers for money they may not even be legally obligated to pay.
In the second-largest penalty ever levied on a debt collector, the F.T.C. said that Asset Acceptance, one of the nation’s largest debt collection companies, had agreed to pay a $2.5 million civil penalty to settle charges that the company deceived consumers when trying to collect old debts.
The settlement is part of a broader effort to patrol the industry, agency officials said. The commission said it had pursued eight cases related to debt collection companies over the last two years.
“Our attention to debt collection has increased over the past couple of years because the complaints have been on the rise,” said J. Reilly Dolan, assistant director for the F.T.C.’s division of financial practices.
Consumer complaints about debt collection companies consistently rank as the second-highest category among all complaints at the agency, behind identity theft. But in 2010, complaints jumped 17 percent to 140,036, which represented 11 percent of all complaints in the commission’s database, up from 119,540, or about 9 percent of complaints, in 2009.
Asset Acceptance, based in Warren, Mich., was charged with a variety of complaints, including failing to tell consumers that they could no longer be sued for failing to pay some debts because the debts were too old. The company’s collectors also failed to inform consumers that paying even a small portion of the amount owed would revive the debt — in other words, making a payment would extend the amount of time the collector could legally sue.
Debt collectors have only a certain number of years to sue consumers. The statute of limitations varies by state, but typically ranges from two to 15 years, Mr. Dolan said, beginning when a consumer fails to make a payment. But borrowers often do not realize that making a payment on the old debt may restart the clock.
Among other things, the complaint also contended that the company — which buys unpaid debts for pennies on the dollar from credit card companies, health clubs and telecommunications and utility providers and tries to collect them — reported inaccurate information about the consumers to the credit reporting agencies. It also said that Asset Acceptance failed to conduct a reasonable investigation when it was notified by one of the credit agencies that a debt was being disputed. Moreover, the complaint says that the company used illegal collection practices and that it continued to try to collect debts that consumers disputed even though the company failed to verify that the debt was valid.
The proposed settlement with Asset Acceptance requires the company to tell consumers whose debt may be too old to be collected that it will not sue. It also requires the company to investigate disputed debts and to ensure it has a reasonable basis for its claims before going after the consumer. It is also barred from placing debt on credit reports without notifying the consumer.
The penalty “is certainly a slap on the wrist and probably a little bit more, but it really depends on what the F.T.C. does to enforce this in the coming months and years,” said Robert Hobbs, deputy director at the National Consumer Law Center and author of “Fair Debt Collection” (National Consumer Law Center, 1987). But “it is a great step forward. It is not self-enforcing, and it has a mechanism for the F.T.C. to follow up.”
Still, while the settlement requires the company to take more responsibility for checking the statute of limitations before it contacts consumers, he said most states did not require debt collectors to do that. That means it is up to consumers to know the rules on the statute of limitations, which, he said, can be “an enormously complex legal question.”
In a statement, Asset Acceptance said that the settlement ended an F.T.C. investigation that began nearly six years ago, and that the company did not admit to any of the allegations. “We are pleased to have this matter behind us, and to have clarity on the F.T.C.’s policies and expectations of the debt collection industry,” said Rion Needs, president and chief executive of Asset Acceptance.
In March, another leading debt collection company, West Asset Management, agreed to pay $2.8 million, the largest civil penalty ever levied by the F.T.C., to settle charges that its collection techniques violated the law. The commission charged that West Asset’s collectors often called consumers multiple times a day, sometimes using rude and abusive language, about accounts that were not theirs. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the F.T.C. now share enforcement authority for debt collection companies, though the new bureau has a power that the F.T.C. did not: it can write new rules for debt collectors. But F.T.C. officials said that debt collection enforcement would remain a top priority.