Bringing Debt Collectors to Heel

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TheStreet.com quoted me in Debt Collectors Hounding You With Robo Calls? Here’s What To Do. It reads, in part,

Mike Arman, a retired mortgage broker residing in City of Oak Hill, Fla., owns a nice home, with only $6,000 left on the mortgage. He’s never been late on a payment, and his FICO credit score is 837.

Yet even with that squeaky clean financial record, Arman still went through the ninth circle of Hell with devilish debt collectors.

“The mortgage servicer would call ten days before the payment was even due, then five days, then two days, then every day until the payment arrived and was posted,” he says. “I told them to stop harassing me, and that my statement was sufficient legal notice under the Fair and Accurate Credit and Transaction Act (FACTA). But they said they don’t honor verbal statements, which is a violation of the law. So, I sent them a registered letter, with return receipt, which I got and filed away for safekeeping.”

The next day, though, the mortgage servicer called again. Instead of taking the call, Arman called a local collections attorney, who not only ended the servicer’s robo calls, but also forced the company to fork over $1,000 to Arman for violating his privacy.

“That was the sweetest $1,000 I have ever gotten in my entire life,” says Arman.

 Not every financial consumer’s debt collector story ends on such an upbeat note, although Uncle Sam is working behind the scenes to get robo-calling debt collectors off of Americans’ backs.

The latest example of that is a new Federal Communications Commission rule that closed a loophole that allowed debt collectors to robo call people with impunity.

Here’s how the FCC explains its new ruling against robo calls.

“The Telephone Consumer Protection Act prohibits most non-emergency robo calls to cell phones, but a provision in last year’s budget bill weakened the law by allowing debt collectors to make such calls when the debt is owed to, or even just guaranteed by, the federal government,” the FCC states in a release issued last week. “Under the provision passed by Congress, debt collectors can make harassing robo calls to millions of Americans with education, mortgage, tax and other federally-backed debt.”

“To make matters worse, the provision raised concerns that it could lead to robo calls not only to those who owe debt, but also their family, references, and even to someone who happens to get assigned a phone number that once belonged to another person who owed debt,” the FCC report adds.

Under the new rules, debt collectors can only make three robo calls or texts each month per loan to borrowers – and they can’t contact the borrower’s family or friends. “Plus, debt collectors are required to inform consumers that they have the right to ask that the calls cease and must honor those requests,” the FCC states.

That’s a big step forward for U.S. adults plagued by debt collection agency robo calls. But the FCC ruling is only one tool in a borrower’s arsenal – there are other steps they can take to keep debt collectors at bay.

If you’re looking to take action, legal or otherwise, against debt collectors, build a good, thorough paper trail, says Patrick Hanan, marketing director at ClassAction.org.

“Keep any messages, write down the phone number that’s calling and basically keep track of whatever information you can about who is calling and when,” Hanan advises. “Just because you owe money, that doesn’t mean that debt collectors get to ignore do-not-call requests. They need express written consent to contact you in the first place, and they need to stop if you tell them to.”

Also, if you want to speak to an attorney about it, most offer a free consultation, so there isn’t any risk to find out more about your rights, Hanan says “They’ll tell you right off the bat if they think you have a case or not,” he notes.

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Going forward, expect the federal government to clamp down even harder on excessive debt collectors. “The Consumer Financial Protection Board takes complaints about debt collector behavior seriously, and has recently issued a proposal to further limit debt collectors’ ability to contact consumers,” says David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. “In the mean time, one concrete step that consumers can do is send a letter telling the debt collector to cease from contacting them. If a debt collector continues to contact a consumer — other than by suing — it may be violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.”

Dealing with Debt Collectors

V0015846 Portrait of a debt collector (?) thumbing through his papers Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Portrait of a debt collector (?) thumbing through his papers outside a front door. Mezzotint by W. Bonnar after T. Bonnar the elder. By: Thomas the elder Bonnarafter: William BonnarPublished:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

I was quoted by CreditCardGuide.com in Know Your Rights with Debt Collectors. It reads, in part,

Regardless of how deep your financial troubles go, you are protected by state and federal law when it comes to how debt collectors can treat you.

First off, you should understand who the people are behind the debt collection notices and phone calls. “A debt collector is defined as someone who is not the original creditor,” explains David Reiss, professor of law and research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School, who also writes the REFinBlog. And, he says, what might start out as a legitimate debt collector contacting you on behalf of a creditor, can change over time since debt collection companies often sell their lists to other companies. Unfortunately, your contact information might end up with a fly-by-night operation that resorts to shady practices, such as trying to frighten you with threats and bullying.

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Consider this your peek into the debt collection rulebook so that you can arm yourself against abusive tactics:

What debt collectors cannot do

  • Call you under a false identity. “That means they cannot say they are an attorney if they are not, or say they are from the sheriff’s office if they are not,” says Reiss.
  • Discuss your debt with your employer, family members (other than your spouse), neighbors or publish your name on a list of people who owe money. “They can call a third party and leave a message for you, but they can’t disclose the details of your debt,” says Tayne. Generally, they can only discuss your debt with you, your spouse and your attorney.
  • Call you at ridiculous hours, such as before 8 a.m. or past 9 p.m. They also cannot call you repeatedly in a single day.
  • Be abusive, threatening or vulgar. In other words, says Tayne, they cannot bully you by calling you a deadbeat or loser for not making payments, and they should never curse at you.
  • Make false threats that they will seize your property, drain your bank accounts or arrest you, says Reiss.

What debt collectors can do

  • Contact you in person, by mail, by phone or by fax between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. However, they can’t contact you at work if they are told you can’t get calls there. Also, if you write to them to stop calling you, they must comply, although they might respond by suing you, so think carefully before sending that letter.
  • Sue you in court. If they do, you’ll have to appear, and it’s in your best interest to hire an attorney. Ideally, you want to work something out before getting to this stage, says Reiss, because court and attorney costs can pile up.
  • Report you to the credit agencies. “Debt collectors can report your default to the credit bureaus,” says Reiss. This negative item will remain on your report for seven years, and your credit score will take a hit.

What you can do

If you think debt collectors are crossing the line, you do have options for recourse, says Reiss. “First, build up a paper record as this can help you later on.” That includes taking notes on every conversation you have, with dates, times and who you spoke to.

You could also try sending a cease-and-desist letter, or asking a lawyer to do so on your behalf, says Reiss. “They may be afraid and back off if a lawyer is involved,” he says.

Tayne finds that such letters aren’t always effective for more hostile debt collectors. “If they’re really out of line, file a lawsuit in small claims court,” she says.

You should also report shady collectors to your state attorney general’s office as well as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, say Reiss and Tayne.

If you do end up making a payment to a debt collector, request documentation that states your debt is paid, and then be sure that the payment is reflected on your credit reports within 90 days. You can get your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Ideally, you don’t ever want to be in a situation in which debt collectors are tasked with contacting you, and incentivized to do whatever it takes to get you to pay them. But if you do end up in that situation, knowing your rights is your best defense. Says Reiss, “Debt collectors do not want consumers to invoke their rights under the FDCPA because the act can severely limit what they can do.”

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

Foreclosures and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

Bloomberg BNA quoted me in Third Circuit Says Foreclosure Complaint May Serve as Basis for Claims Under FDCPA (behind a paywall). The article opens,

A foreclosure complaint may form the basis of a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held, saying foreclosure meets the broad definition of “debt collection” under the statute (Kaymark v. Bank of Am. N.A.2015 BL 97853, 3d Cir., No. 14-cv-01816, 4/7/15).

Dale Kaymark filed a class suit against Bank of America and Udren Law Offices, P.C., a Cherry Hill, N.J., law firm, including in its claims an allegation that Udren violated the FDCPA by listing in a foreclosure complaint not-yet-incurred fees as due and owing.

Kaymark also said the firm violated the statute by trying to collect fees not authorized by the mortgage agreement.

A district court dismissed those and other claims by Kaymark, but the Third Circuit reversed April 7, allowing all but one of his FDCPA claims against Udren.

According to the court, a 2014 Third Circuit ruling on debt collection letters also applies to foreclosure complaints.

“We conclude that a communication cannot be uniquely exempted from the FDCPA because it is a formal pleading or, in particular, a complaint,” Judge D. Michael Fisher said. “This principle is widely accepted by our sister Circuits,” he said.

Wide Impact Seen

Udren Law Offices did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case. In separate briefs filed in August 2014 and December 2014, lawyers for the firm predicted that application of the FDCPA to foreclosure complaints might allow any state foreclosure action to spark an FDCPA suit, with ill effects for legal practice.

A Bank of America spokeswoman April 8 declined to comment on the ruling. The FDCPA claim was directed only at the law firm, not the bank. Lawyers for Kaymark also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss, the Research Director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, said the decision highlights increased judicial sensitivity in some areas of the law.

“It’s a well-reasoned ruling that clarifies application of the statute in the foreclosure context and that will affect contacts that lawyers have with alleged debtors,” said Reiss, who maintains a real estate finance blog. “In terms of practical effects, it won’t necessarily mean thousands of new lawsuits, but it does mean that lawyers will have to be very careful about how they communicate fees and estimates. It’s going to mean, to some extent, a cleaning-up of informal practices in the foreclosure bar, such as treating not-yet-accrued costs as accrued costs,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA.

Protecting Homeowners During Mortgage Servicing Transfers

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued a Compliance Bulletin and Policy Guidance on Mortgage Servicing Transfers (Bulletin 2014-01). Mortgage Serving Transfers have been receiving a lot of attention (also here) recently from regulators as the servicing industry is going through many changes.

The CFPB is right to focus on the impact of the transfer of mortgage servicing rights on homeowners. Many complaints made directly to regulators and seen in foreclosure cases relate to the Kafkaesque treatment that homeowners receive as their servicer point-of-contact changes from interaction to interaction.

The Bulletin indicates that servicers will have to do a fair amount of planning to ensure that consumers are not harmed by the transfer of servicing rights. In particular, the CFPB will be watching to see that servicers are (WARNING:  Boring and Technical Language Alert!):

  • Ensuring that contracts require the transferor to provide all necessary documents and information at loan boarding.
  • Developing tailored transfer instructions for each deal and conducting meetings to
    discuss and clarify key issues with counterparties in a timely manner; for large transfers, this could be months in advance of the transfer. Key issues may include descriptions of proprietary modifications, detailed descriptions of data fields, known issues with document indexing, and specific regulatory or settlement requirements applicable to some or all of the transferred loans.
  • Using specifically tailored testing protocols to evaluate the compatibility of the
    transferred data with the transferee servicer’s systems and data mapping protocols.
  • Engaging in quality control work after the transfer of preliminary data to validate that the data on the transferee’s system matches the data submitted by the transferor.
  • Recognizing when the transfer cannot be implemented successfully in a single batch and implementing alternative protocols, such as splitting the transfer into several smaller transactions, to ensure that the transferee can comply with its servicing obligations for every loan transferred. (3)

As a bonus, the Bulletin provides an overview of statutes and regulations that govern the transfer of mortgage servicing.