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5 Scary Facts About Debt Collectors

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Debt collectors have a bad reputation among consumers. Even debt collectors who are super friendly and do their jobs by the book are loathed or feared by many of the people on their call lists, because collectors remind them of financial frustration or trigger stress.

It’s rare to hear someone say, “I really like my debt collector,” because, while there are plenty of collectors who abide by the rules and approach their jobs with tact, the industry has some serious issues. In its spring report on the nonbank financial services it supervises, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau highlighted several instances when collections agencies violated laws as a means to getting consumers to pay their debts.

The issues outlined in the report aren’t necessarily widespread, the CFPB noted, but the violations have been singled out because they may be happening at other collections agencies, in which case, those entities need to modify their practices. While these tactics may not be commonly employed by debt collectors, it’s problematic that even a handful of consumers have to endure them. Here are some of some highlights of the report.

1. Debt Collectors Are Everywhere

There are more than 4,500 debt collection agencies in the U.S. That means there’s an army of debt collectors out there, and they have a lot of tools at their disposal when they’re looking for you (here are some of the ways they find you). Ignoring debt doesn’t make it go away — here are some tips for dealing with collections calls.

2. Some Collectors Are Terribly Disorganized

One of the agencies the CFPB observed had an inadequate compliance management system. The company wasn’t tracking consumers’ complaints or following up on issues to make sure they were resolved, which almost certainly caused a lot of consumer frustration and confusion. Like many other businesses, debt collection involves coordinating many moving parts, and the CFPB found very little oversight of them.

Think of it like a machine: It needs regular maintenance to make sure everything is working properly and won’t suddenly fall apart. In at least one of the collection agencies supervised by the CFPB, there was no such maintenance: it worked with debt buyers without verifying their compliance with federal law, it operated without regular audits or compliance reviews, and the few policies and procedures it had were insufficient, the report found.

Organizational issues complicated matters for consumers with canceled debt. Even after those consumers were issued 1099-C forms, their collectors sometimes sold the canceled debt, meaning the consumer would have to dispute the debt with a different collector. (When a debt has been canceled, the IRS sees it as income and requires you to pay taxes on it. Dealing with a 1099-C can be a little complicated, but here’s what you need to know about taxes and canceled debt.)

3. They May Not Investigate Disputes

If you see a collections account on your credit report and you believe it does not belong there, you should file a dispute with the credit bureau from which you received your report. The credit reporting agency then reaches out to the collector to investigate the dispute.

It doesn’t always go that way. The CFPB found a collector that, upon receiving notices of dispute, merely told the credit reporting agency to delete the disputed account, rather than investigate it. As a consumer, that may sound like an appealing outcome (collections accounts have a negative impact on your credit score), but that’s not how it’s supposed to work. Credit histories are helpful to lenders evaluating loan applications, but credit reports and credit scores don’t serve their purpose if they’re based on inaccurate information.

4. Some Collectors Are Violating Federal Law

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, collectors are prohibited from making misleading representations when collecting a debt. The CFPB reviewed collections lawsuits initiated by collectors, and 70% of the time, the collection agency dropped the case when consumers filed an answer (meaning they believe they do not owe some or all of the debt pursued by the collector). The reason? The agency couldn’t find the documentation to support its claims.

The collectors never intended to follow through on the lawsuits, the CFPB said, making them a violation of FDCPA.

5. You May Be Harassed

Debt collectors have a lot of rules to follow when it comes to contacting consumers (read about your rights here), but some collectors break them. Here’s an extreme example: CFPB supervisors found a debt collector that made about 17,000 calls to consumers outside of the appropriate times. That’s not all: The same company contacted more than 1,000 consumers as often as 20 times within two days. That’s not OK.

Nobody wants collections on their credit reports, and people definitely don’t want to be subjected to unruly collection agencies in the process. Debt collectors aren’t all bad (sometimes it’s the consumer who causes problems), but ignoring them won’t do any good. To learn more about how collections accounts impact your credit, check out two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

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