David Vladeck director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and DOJ Assistant Attorney Tony West today conducted a conference call I attended to provide additional information regarding an announced settlement with collection company Asset Acceptance. In the settlement Asset Acceptance agreed to pay the second largest fine ever against a collection company for alleged violations.
Asset Acceptance is one of the larger debt buyers. They purchase and collect old debt that had been previously placed with other entities but problems with accuracy and data create a situation where the data is less reliable, yet it was being used. As a debt is passed from one entity to another the quality of records deteriorates when people with similar names and address are involved. Erroneously people may be contacted about debts that never belonged to them at all. And that’s a problem.
In some states the applicable statute of limitations will prevent suits on this old debt but in others a partial payment or an agreement to repay will restart the clock on the ability for a debt collector or debt owner to sue. Debt buyers and debt collectors sometimes are not clear about this and can trick the consumer into reviving an old debt by agreeing the debt is theirs or making a partial payment.
The FTC and DOJ alleged Asset Acceptance had little or no evidence to support validation of some debts they were attempting to collect on and that Asset Acceptance did not take reasonable steps to validate. They stated Asset Acceptance continued collection efforts anyway. And reported to credit reporting agencies.
The action against Asset Acceptance creates a framework of what is acceptable.
- Time Barred Debt / Statute of Limitation Debt: If a collector calls demanding payment Asset has agreed to disclose to consumers that it is time barred and cannot be collected via a lawsuit.
- Partial Payments Reviving Debts: Many debt buyers accept partial payments to reset clock without informing consumers this will happen. Asset has waived it’s right to partial payment revival of stale debt.
- Collection agencies park debt on credit reports to force consumers to pay off the debt to get rid of it even if it is not accurate. The thought was that a consumer applying for a loan or new credit and who discovered an old collection debt might just pay it off. Asset Acceptance has agreed to give consumers notice when it reports to credit reporting agencies.
- Reliability of Information. If a collector or knows or should know the information is not accurate and the consumer has provided reliable information proving the information is not accurate, the collector must take reasonable steps to confirm the accuracy of the information before collection efforts. What those reasonable steps are was not made clear.
Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Tony West said, “Going forward we have a framework for the entire debt collection industry to follow.” This should be a message to debt collection industry that they will be held accountable, “if they don’t act fairly and responsibly.”
The FTC complaint against Asset Acceptance alleged Asset was:
- misrepresenting that consumers owed a debt when it could not substantiate its representations;
- failing to disclose that debts are too old to be legally enforceable or that a partial payment would extend the time a debt could be legally enforceable;
- providing information to credit reporting agencies, while knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the information was inaccurate;
- failing to notify consumers in writing that it provided negative information to a credit reporting agency;
- failing to conduct a reasonable investigation when it received a notice of dispute from a credit reporting agency;
- repeatedly calling third parties who do not owe a debt;
- informing third parties about a debt;
- sing illegal debt-collection practices, including misrepresenting the character, amount, or legal status of a debt; providing inaccurate information to credit reporting agencies; and making false representations to collect a debt; and
- failing to provide verification of the debt and continuing to attempt to collect a debt when it is disputed by the consumer.