The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warned companies collecting debt that it is closely watching how consumers are treated while at the same time expanding ways for consumers to dispute debt.
The CFPB issued bulletins on Wednesday stating that any company within its purview collecting debt will be held accountable for unlawfully dealing with consumers. It also expanded its already massive online consumer complaint database to debt collection and is offering five action letters for consumers to use in corresponding with collectors.
The announcement came just prior to the CFPB holding a field hearing on debt collection practices in Portland, Maine.
"These bulletins make clear that it doesn't matter who is collecting the debt unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices are illegal," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray in prepared remarks at the field hearing. "Consumers need options to help them secure fair and respectful treatment from those debt collectors that fail to abide by the law. They can protect themselves by using our action letters to communicate with debt collectors and by submitting a complaint to us if they believe they are harmed by illegal conduct."
Regulators have already ramped up actions against banks and other companies for collecting debt. On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission sought a $3.2 million fine against what it described as the largest collector in the world, Expert Global Solutions, accusing it of unlawfully going after consumers to collect debts.
JPMorgan Chase has also halted most of its debt sales to third party collectors in anticipation of regulatory criticism by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
"Debt collection also has more salience today than perhaps at any time in our country's history. In the wake of the recent financial crisis, we see far too many people who have fallen into financial difficulties," Cordray said in the remarks. "The best estimates are that thirty million Americans nearly one out of every ten of us came out of the financial crisis with one or more debts in collection, for amounts that average about $1,400 per person."
Earlier this year, the CFPB began supervising companies with more than $10 million in annual receipts from consumer debt collection activities, covering about 175 debt collectors and buyers. The CFPB said the bulletins were meant to warn companies in its jurisdiction, including first-and third-party collectors, against falsifying information about the debt and not recognizing payments by a consumer, among other items. Payment information can easily get lost or jumbled when companies sell debt in bundles to third-party collectors. The CFPB recently met with the FTC at a roundtable to begin addressing such issues, which reinforced observers' opinions that a rulemaking is underway.
"At our joint roundtable, we heard strong consensus about the need for robust national documentation standards and the need to maintain the accuracy of information used to collect debts," Cordray said. "We will keep that in mind as we move toward a rulemaking process on debt collection issues."
One of the bulletins also warned companies about using deceptive statements about the impact paying a debt has on a consumer's credit score, credit report or creditworthiness.
"Some debts are too old, under federal law, to be included on a consumer's credit report for most purposes. Collectors may try to conceal this fact, telling consumers that paying the debt would remove it from their credit report even though the debt does not show up there anyway," Cordray said. "The bulletin is intended to serve as a reminder that such practices are wrong and that the consumer bureau will be attentive to hold people accountable for illegal actions."