WATCHING THE COLLECTORS:
DEBTOR PROTECTION IN WORKS

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An old Sprint debt has become an albatross for Brooklyn resident Deborah Jones. “Over two years, I’ve been harassed every day,” said Jones, who works as a development assistant at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

First, Sprint maintained she owed $700. Jones demanded to see the bills detailing such a large amount, but they never came. She then received a letter from the company saying she could settle for $170, which was closer to what Jones believed she owed.

The calls stopped for a while when her debt was sold to a third party, but then resumed. At the same time, she received another letter offering to settle the matter for $80. All the while, Jones said, she never got copies of the bill, although she continued requesting them.

“These collectors feel they have been given license to say whatever they want to and they go after people with a vengeance,” she said.

Stories like Jones’s motivated City Councilmember David Weprin (D-Queens) to propose legislation cracking down on such behavior by debt collectors, which is often illegal. Weprin, who chairs the Council’s Finance Committee, is all too familiar with the situation: he recently was the target of an out-of-control collector. That’s why he plans to introduce legislation before the full Council in August that’s designed to limit this behavior. The Council’s Consumer Affairs committee will hold hearings on the legislation in the fall, and the full Council should vote on the proposals after that.

“This collection guy kept threatening me on my cell phone. How he got my number, I’ll never know,” Weprin said. The matter was over a small amount that was covered by Weprin’s insurance but hadn’t yet been paid. “The guy was relentless. He mentioned lawsuits and even threatened my credit.”

Such conduct often violates the federal Fair Credit Collection Practices Act, which forbids making threats of violence or harm, using obscene or profane language, and repeatedly using the telephone to annoy someone, including calling before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

When he inquired at the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which oversees the licensing of such agencies, Weprin discovered “the fines are too low and the [department] didn’t have the tools using existing laws to prevent these tactics.”

DCA held its own hearing into the issue of debt collection practices in June and supports Weprin’s initiative.

Weprin’s proposals include tripling existing fines, empowering the DCA to revoke from repeat offenders the licenses issued to debt collection agencies under the city’s Administrative Code, and shifting the burden of proof from the alleged debtor to the debt collection agency.

“The initial vetting [of debts] by these agencies” is particularly important, Weprin said, because sometimes the debts are not valid, have been paid off, or the statute of limitations — six years in New York State — has run out. “They’ll have to do the initial due diligence beforehand…[maybe] they’ll think twice on the basis of facts.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission, complaints against debt collectors more than doubled over the past three years to 900 just in New York City. Nationally, the number increased six-fold since 1999.

But Lynn Goldberg, president of the New York State Collectors Association, who runs his own collections agency called National Credit Systems Inc., takes issue with those numbers. Goldberg said the increased complaints “arise from the [actions of] debt purchasers versus the collection agencies, who receive the increased thrust of scrutiny.”

“If they are going to crack down…they can’t lump the two together. There should be regulations for debt buyers, who aren’t really third party collectors…they own the debts,” he said. “Why should we suffer in publicity and in oversight for the abuses of a totally different category of businesses? They should have their own category of licensing.”

Two local groups that supply consumer and legal advice to the poor and elderly both report that the number one complaint they receive on their telephone help lines has been about debt collectors.

MFY Legal Services joined in Weprin’s press conference this month announcing his upcoming bill. Speaking there, Staff Attorney Karuna Patel said consumers with collectors after them are fighting an uphill battle.

In an interview, Patel noted this is especially true for victims of fraudulent claims. “Federal and state benefits are exempt from collection…including unemployment insurance,” she said, but because so many people don’t know their rights, “most clients, who live on these benefits, are harassed, forced or even hoodwinked” into using this money to pay off debts. “Seniors on fixed income sometimes pay just to stop the harassment…sometimes they choose paying over buying medication,” she said.

The Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (NEDAP) is a nonprofit that offers legal advice to low-income city residents. Staff Attorney Claudia Wilner testified at the DCA hearing in support of tougher enforcement.

Wilner said the majority of consumer complaints come from women and minorities in the city’s lowest income neighborhoods, such as Washington Heights, East Harlem, Crown Heights and East New York. “Many of our callers receive some form of protected income, such as Public Assistance or Social Security. And many are struggling to raise families on a very limited income,” she said.

Third-party collectors are pursuing debts in court more and more, Wilner said, but often the alleged debtors don’t come to court either because they didn’t get the legal notification or they’re too frightened to appear. The collectors are “racking up default judgments and freezing bank accounts,” she said, even without proof that the debt exists in the first place.

A spokesman for Weprin said he is considering writing specific language into the bill allowing consumers to bring a cause of action against agencies that pursue “frivolous lawsuits.”

Mark Davitt, past president of the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, who is also the president of his own New York-based third-party debt collection company, also testified at the DCA hearing. In an interview, he said, “The problem is confusing and misunderstood,” because the correct information often is not forwarded to the debt buyer.

“[It’s easy to say] let’s beat up the bill collector, but if you really analyze the process, there’s nothing wrong. Maybe there should be expectations on what type of documentation should accompany the sale” of debt, Davitt said.

“Filing a complaint doesn’t necessarily mean the collection agency is wrong,” Davitt noted. “But there are bad people, cowboys, out there. There’s nothing more I’d love to see than the FTC bring its entire weight on them.” In the end, Davitt said, “we can’t be successful if we’re stripping the dignity away of our clients.”

– Jillian Jonas