Private debt collectors are subject to a variety of laws policing their collection of private debts. The Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (FDCPA) imposes clear and strict requirements on debt collectors – such as preventing them from shaming consumers into payment by publishing the names or calling their parents, preventing them from lying to consumers or threatening them with illegal behavior.
However, FDCPA applies only to consumer transactions and does not cover matters such as tax debts. Boyd v. J.E. Robert Co., 765 F.3d 123 (2d Cir. 2014); Beggs v. Rossi, 145 F.3d 511 (2d Cir. 1998). Federal employees are also specially exempted from the FDCPA. 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6)(C).
So, what’s left to protect taxpayers?
A proposed Consent Order has been filed in the CFPB’s enforcement action against Frederick J. Hanna Associates. This was the first enforcement action by the CFPB directly against a collection law firm and was the subject of a vigorous defense by Hanna and much comment in the trade press. Hanna lost its motion to dismiss in July 2015, made an unsuccessful motion for an interlocutory appeal and discovery was ordered to proceed.
The case attracted a lot of attention: from the Wall Street Journal to trade publication InsideARM which said that “[t]he case should be front and center for all law firms practicing in this space“. In light of the excitement about the case, the bottom line of the Consent Order is, rather disappointing: Hanna is to pay $3.1 million in penalties to the CFPB and agrees to injunctive relief(all without admitting any of the CFPB’s allegations). There is no relief for consumers targeted by Hanna – that is presumably left to private law suits.
An excellent November 17, 2015 New York Times editorial highlights several widespread abusive collection practices, and calls on states to update collection and garnishment laws to better protect consumers from predatory debt collectors. “For example, companies that buy up consumer debt for pennies on the dollar from creditors and then try to recover the full debt for themselves often pursue people for debts that are too old to be legally collected or fake documents intended to show that the debt is authentic.” For years, consumer advocates have been pointing out these types of abuses. Perhaps the NYT coverage will lead to greater public awareness and thereby subject collectors and the court system to greater scrutiny. The editorial is reprinted in full below: