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GAO Report Joins FTC in Calling for Overhaul of Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

October 30, 2009

As fair debt collection attorneys in Riverside County, we have long believed that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is overdue for updates. The federal law, which provides consumer protections from unfair, abusive or harassing debt collectors, was written in 1977, before the advent of the Internet or cell phones and without adjustments for inflation. That's why we were pleased to see a Government Accountability Office report released Oct. 21 calling for major changes to the law that would modernize it and help boost enforcement efforts, which it said have fallen very short. As financial columnist Michelle Singletary wrote Oct. 28, the report echoes a similar call from the FTC itself earlier this year to improve the FDCPA.

The GAO found major problems with the FDCPA for nearly everyone involved in debt collection, including debt collectors themselves, consumers, the FTC and the state court systems. The FTC gets more complaints about the debt collection industry than about any other industry, the report said -- but over the past decade, it has taken formal enforcement action just 32 times. Meanwhile, abusive practices that blatantly break the law have proliferated, and the resulting debt collection cases are now a majority of all civil cases in many state courts, creating a burden on the civil justice system. And of course, the 32-year-old FDCPA does not acknowledge new communications techniques or new practices in the debt collection industry. Among the recommendations the GAO made:

  • Congress should allow the FTC to have rule-making power, freeing Congress from the burden of updating the law regularly.
  • The FDCPA should be changed to clarify what counts as proof of what is owed.
  • Debt collectors should be required to tell debtors who the original creditor was.
  • Debt collectors should be required to explain which parts of the debt are principal, which are interest and which are fees.
  • Debt collectors should be required to notify consumers of their rights under the FDCPA.

Our Paramount FDCPA attorneys are delighted that the federal government is giving this issue some long-overdue attention. After more than 30 years, attorneys like us and the courts have had ample chances to examine the law and figure out where it falls short. As the GAO found, one of the biggest problems with the FDCPA is enforcement -- or lack thereof. Due to lack of resources or lack of enthusiasm, the FTC has taken action on only a tiny fraction of abuses, leaving private attorneys and state consumer protection agencies to pick up the slack. As a result, collection agencies have learned that they are free to blatantly break the law, knowing that they face no serious penalties unless a large number of victims happen to know their rights. We strongly support giving the FTC rule-making power so it can make adjustments to the law to clarify it, reflect new technologies and keep penalties up with inflation.

Even if the FTC or the California Department of Justice can't or won't take action against an abusive debt collector, Howard Law LLP can. The FDCPA allows people whose rights were violated by collection agencies to sue those agencies in civil court, even without help from a government agency. In these lawsuits, they can claim financial compensation for all of the costs of the harassment or abuse; attorney fees and court costs; and up to $1,000 for each violation of the law. Just as importantly, they can help expose and penalize abusive collection agencies and help other consumers learn about their rights. Our Escondido debt collection abuse lawyers help clients, individually or as part of a class action, hold debt collectors legally responsible for abuses including threats of arrest or physical violence, calls at late or early hours, requesting too much money and more.

If you've been lied to, threatened or otherwise abused by a debt collector, regardless of whether you actually owe the debt, you should talk to Howard Law right away. To learn more at a free consultation, please call us toll-free at 1-800-872-5925 or contact us through the Internet.