DOJ Announces Arrests and Charges Against Debt Collection Company

On November 19, the DOJ issued a press release announcing charges against six employees of a Georgia-based debt collection company for allegedly running a $4.1 million dollar debt collection scam. According to the press release, from approximately 2009 to May 2014, the accused employees allegedly falsely represented themselves as affiliated with various law enforcement agencies, and made a variety of false statements to consumers in an attempt to coerce them into making payments to the debt collection company. The action appears to be the first case in which multiple federal agencies – U.S. Attorneys’ Office, CFPB, FBI, and the FTC – have taken a coordinated action against a debt collector. The complaint was filed in the Southern District of New York.

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Special Alert: CFPB Takes Enforcement Action Against “Buy-Here, Pay-Here” Auto Dealer for Alleged Unfair Collection and Credit Reporting Tactics

On November 19, the CFPB announced an enforcement action against a ‘buy-here, pay-here’ auto dealer alleging unfair debt collection practices and the furnishing of inaccurate information about customers to credit reporting agencies. ‘Buy-here, pay-here’ auto dealers typically do not assign their retail installment sale contracts (RISCs) to unaffiliated finance companies or banks, and therefore are subject to the CFPB’s enforcement authority. Consistent with the position it staked out in CFPB Bulletin 2013-07, in this enforcement action the CFPB appears to have applied specific requirements of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) to the dealer in its capacity as a creditor based on the CFPB’s broader authority over unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts practices.

Alleged Violations

The CFPB charges that the auto dealer violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531, 5536, which prohibits unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices, by (i) repeatedly calling customers at work, despite being asked to stop; (ii) repeatedly calling the references of customers, despite being asked to stop; and (iii) making excessive, repeated calls to wrong numbers in efforts to reach customers who fell behind on their auto loan payments. Specifically, the CFPB alleges that the auto dealer used a third-party database to “skip trace” for new phone numbers of its customers. As a result, numerous wrong parties were contacted who asked to stop receiving calls. Despite their requests, the auto dealer allegedly failed to prevent calls to these wrong parties or did not remove their contact information from its system.

In addition, the CFPB alleges that the auto dealer violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by (i) providing inaccurate information to credit reporting agencies; (ii) improperly handling consumer disputes regarding furnished information; and (iii) not establishing and implementing “reasonable written policies and procedures regarding the accuracy and integrity of the information relating to [customers] that it furnishes to a consumer reporting agency.” Specifically, the CFPB alleges that, since 2010, the auto dealer did not review or update its written furnishing policies, despite knowing that conversion to its third-party servicing platform had led to widespread inaccuracies in furnished information. Also, the consent order alleges that the auto dealer received more than 22,000 credit disputes per year, including disputes regarding the timing of repossessions and dates of first delinquency for charged-off accounts, but nevertheless furnished inaccurate information. Read more…

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CFPB Releases Report Highlighting Debt Collection Complaints Among Older Americans

On November 5, the CFPB announced the release of a report highlighting debt collection issues among older Americans. The report analyzed nearly 8,700 complaints made by older consumers from July 2013 to September 2014. The most common debt collection complaints noted in the report relate to medical debt, debts of deceased family members, and threats to garnish older American’s federal benefits. Notably, of the complaints submitted, 17 percent were related to credit cards and 5 percent to payday loans.

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Third Circuit Reverses Lower Court Decision, Rules Envelope Revealing Consumer’s Account Number Violates the FDCPA

Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a lower court’s holding that the disclosure of a consumer’s account is not a “benign” disclosure and, therefore, violates the FDCPA. Douglass v. Convergent Outsourcing, No. 13-3588, 2014 WL 4235570 (3d Cir. Aug. 28, 2014). In this case, a debt collector sent a consumer a dunning letter in a window envelope, and the consumer’s account number was visible through the window.  The consumer brought a claim under § 1692f(8) of the FDCPA, which bars debt collectors from using any language or symbol other than the collector’s address on any envelope sent to the consumer.  The debt collector contended that the claim must fail because the account number was “benign language” that was not prohibited by § 1692f(8) of the FDCPA. The Third Circuit held that even if “benign language” was exempt from § 1692f(8)’s prohibition (a question that the court declined to decide), the consumer’s account number was not benign.  In particular, the court noted that the disclosure of the account number threatened the consumer’s privacy because it was a “core piece of information pertaining to the status as a debtor and the debt collection effort.”

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CFPB And FTC To Hold Roundtable On Debt Collection In The Latino Community

On October 23, the CFPB and the FTC will hold a roundtable to discuss the effects of debt collection and credit reporting in the Latino community. The event will focus on the customers with limited English proficiency, and is scheduled to take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Long Beach, CA.

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FTC Announces Settlements Against Debt Collection Practice And Its Principals

On September 23, the Federal Trade Commission released a statement announcing the settlement of claims and a default judgment against a debt collection operation based out of Atlanta and Cleveland and its principals, barring them from debt collection activities and subjecting the defendants to a judgment of over $9.3 million. According to the release, the defendants violated FDCPA by threatening consumers with legal action unless they rendered payment on debts that the consumer, in many cases, did not actually owe. The defendants were alleged to use fictitious business names that implied affiliation with a law firm to harass consumers, through robocalls and voicemails, to make payments on these non-existent debts.

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Fourth Circuit Holds That Debtors Are Not Required To Dispute Debt In Writing To State A Claim Under FDCPA

On August 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of a debt collector’s motion for judgment as a matter of law because, under the FDCPA, debtors are not required to dispute debts in writing pursuant to Section 1692g in order to seek relief under Section 1692e. Russell v. Absolute Collection Services, No. 12-2357, 2014 WL 3973729 (4th Cir. Aug. 15, 2014). Within thirty days of receiving the initial debt collection letter, the debtor paid the entire amount due directly to her husband’s medical provider. However, the debt collector continued to make calls and send collection letters thereafter. During the calls, the debtor told the collector that the debt had been paid, but she never advised the collector in writing that she was disputing the debt, nor did she send proof of payment. The debt collector argued that Section 1692g debt validation procedures required the debtor to dispute the debt in writing. The court disagreed, stating that such an interpretation “would thwart the statute’s objective of curtailing abusive and deceptive collection practices and would contravene the FDCPA’s express command that debt collectors be liable for violations of ‘any provision’ of the statute.”

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Massachusetts Regulator Issues Advisory Opinion On Debt Validation

Last month, the Massachusetts Division of Banks (DOB) issued an advisory opinion addressing whether an oral request by a debtor for certain records to validate a debt (pursuant to 209 CMR 18.18(3)) triggers a debt collector’s obligation to provide such documents within five business days. The DOB advised that a debt collector’s receipt of an oral request for such records from a consumer (or a consumer’s attorney) is sufficient to trigger the debt collector’s obligation and may serve to commence the five business day period in which the required response must be returned to the consumer.

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OCC Issues New Debt Sale Guidance

On August 4, the OCC issued Bulletin 2014-37, which provides new guidance on the application of consumer protection requirements and safe and sound banking practices to consumer debt-sale arrangements with third parties—e.g. debt buyers—that intend to pursue collection of the underlying obligations. The guidance goes well beyond the set of “best practices” the OCC provided last summer as an attachment to written testimony submitted to a U.S. Senate committee. For example, the new guidance establishes requirements to: (i) notify the consumer that a debt has been sold, the dollar amount of the debt transferred, and the name and address of the debt buyer; (ii) perform due diligence on the debt buyer down to the consumer complaint level; and (iii) provide the debt buyer with the signed debt contract and a detailed payment history. The bulletin also requires sale contracts to include limitations on the debt buyer’s ability to litigate on an account and “minimum-service-level agreements” that apply whether or not debt buyers conduct the collection activities or employ other collection agents. The Bulletin specifies that certain types of debt are “not appropriate for sale,” such as: (i) debt of borrowers who have sought or are seeking bankruptcy protection; (ii) accounts eligible for Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protections; (iii) accounts in disaster areas; and (iv) accounts close to the statute of limitations.

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Bankruptcy Court Refuses To Dismiss Class Suit Claiming Bank’s Credit Reporting Practices Violated Bankruptcy Code

On July 22, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York rejected a bank’s motion to dismiss a putative class action adversary proceeding alleging that certain of the bank’s credit reporting practices violated U.S. bankruptcy law. In re Haynes, No. 11-23212, 2014 WL 3608891 (S.D.N.Y. Jul. 22, 2014). The named plaintiff-debtor alleged that the bank charged off and sold his debt, which was subsequently discharged in bankruptcy, but failed to correct his credit report that listed the debt, post-discharge, as being only “charged off,” rather than being “discharged in bankruptcy.” The bank moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that because it sold the debt pre-bankruptcy, it did not have an obligation under the FCRA or Sections 727 and 524(a) of the Bankruptcy Code to correct the debtor’s credit report. The court denied the bank’s motion on the grounds that (i) the bank continues to have an economic interest in the debt—notwithstanding its sale—because the bank continues to receive a percentage payment of the proceeds of each debt repaid to it and forwarded to the debt’s purchaser; and (ii) by failing to correct the credit reports, the bank is enhancing its purchasers’ ability to collect on the debt.

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CFPB Sues Debt Collection Law Firm

On July 14, the CFPB sued a Georgia-based law firm and its three principal partners for allegedly using high-volume litigation tactics to collect millions of dollars from consumers who may not actually have owed the debts or may not have owed the debts in the amounts claimed. The suit relates to the firm’s attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, consumer credit-card debts on behalf of both credit-card issuers and debt buyers that purchase portfolios of defaulted credit-card debts. The CFPB alleges the defendants violated the FDCPA and engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by: (i) serving consumers with deceptive court filings generated by automated processes and the work of non-attorney staff, without any meaningful involvement of attorneys; and (ii) introducing faulty or unsubstantiated evidence through sworn statements even though some signers could not have known the details they were attesting to. The CFPB is seeking to permanently enjoin the firm from engaging in the alleged activity, restitution to borrowers, disgorgement, civil money penalties, and damages and other monetary relief.

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New York Revises Proposed Debt Collection Regulations

On July 16, the New York DFS re-proposed a rule to regulate third-party debt collection. The revised proposal: (i) describes disclosures debt collectors must provide to consumers when the debt collector initially communicates with a consumer, and additional disclosures that must be provided when the debt collector is communicating with a consumer regarding a charged-off debt; (ii) requires debt collectors to disclose to consumers when the statute of limitations on a debt has expired; (iii) outlines a process for consumers to request additional documentation proving the validity of the charged-off debt and the debt collector’s right to collect the charged-off debt; (iv) requires debt collectors to provide consumers written confirmation of debt settlement agreements and regular accounting of the debt while the consumer is paying off a debt pursuant to a settlement agreement; (v) requires debt collectors to provide consumers with disclosures of certain rights when settling a debt; and (vi) allows debt collectors to correspond with consumers by electronic mail in certain circumstances. The DFS states that although comments on its initial proposal were “generally supportive,” the revised proposal responds to comments on how the rules could better correspond to the structure of the collection industry, and seeks to clarify the meaning of certain provisions. Comments on the revised proposal are due by August 15, 2014.

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Education Department OIG Reports On Borrower Complaints Against Collection Agencies

On July 15, the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a report on its audit of the Department’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) office, which revealed that the FSA has failed to effectively: (i) monitor borrower complaints against private collection agencies (PCAs) and ensure that corrective action is taken; (ii) ensure PCAs are abiding by federal debt collection laws and the related terms of their contracts; and (iii) consider borrower complaints in its evaluation and compensation of PCAs. The audit covered the period October 1, 2009, through September 30, 2012. The OIG recommended that FSA, among other things, (i) enforce the contract requirement that PCAs submit all complaints to FSA and establish procedures that include ensuring PCAs take corrective action; and (ii) require relevant staff to monitor, review, and evaluate the PCA deliverables and reconcile the management/fiscal reports with recorded complaints. The FSA concurred with the findings and most of the recommendations and stated that it has taken a number of steps over the past two years to strengthen its PCA oversight efforts. The FSA further stated that it has planned additional improvements that will further enhance its ability to effectively oversee PCA’s interactions with defaulted borrowers.

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CFPB UDAAP Action Targets Payday Lender’s Collection Activities

This afternoon, the CFPB announced that a nonbank consumer lender will pay $10 million to resolve allegations that it engaged in certain unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices in the collection of payday loans. This action comes exactly one year after the CFPB issued guidance that it would hold supervised creditors accountable for engaging in acts or practices the CFPB considers to be unfair, deceptive, and/or abusive when collecting their own debts, in much the same way third-party debt collectors are held accountable for violations of the FDCPA. Read more…

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Michigan Supreme Court Holds Forwarding Companies Are Collection Agencies Subject To Licensing Rules

On June 13, the Michigan Supreme Court held that forwarding companies are collection agencies under state law and are subject to state licensing requirements. Badeen v. Par, Inc., No. 147150, 2014 WL 2686068 (Mich. Jun. 13, 2014). In this case, a state-licensed debt collection agency and an individual state-licensed collection agency manager filed a putative class action against a group of forwarding companies—companies that contract with creditors to allocate a collection to a collection agent in the appropriate location but  do not contact the debtors themselves—alleging the companies are actually collection agencies and were operating in the state without first obtaining a collection agency license. The court explained that under state law, a collection agency is “a person directly or indirectly engaged in soliciting a claim for collection or collecting or attempting to collect a claim owed or due another or repossessing or attempting to repossess a thing of value owed or due another arising out of an expressed or implied agreement.” The court determined that under the plain meaning of the statute, the phrase “soliciting a claim for collection” means asking a creditor for any unpaid debts that the collection agency may pursue by allocating them to local collection agents, which the forwarding companies did by contracting with creditors. The court rejected the forwarding companies’ argument that they do not satisfy the definition because soliciting a claim for collection refers only to asking the debtor to pay his or her debt, which the forwarding companies did not do. The court determined it need not reach the issue of whether the forwarding companies indirectly collect or attempt to collect debts when they contract with a local collection agency. The court remanded for trial court consideration a separate issue of whether the forwarding companies satisfy a statutory exception to the licensing requirements applicable to collection agencies whose collection activities in the state are limited to interstate communications.

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