Many Americans are looking forward to Election Day simply because the political robocalls will stop. Finally. But the phone never stops ringing for about 30 million Americans who owe money and are hearing, perhaps a little too frequently, from debt collectors.
And what if you don't even really owe money?
Nearly one out of 10 Americans is dealing with debt collectors for an average of about $1,500 apiece, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Beginning in January, the new watchdog group will begin more intense supervision of larger debt collectors -- including third-party collection firms with receipts of at least $10 million per year.
What could be helpful here is that this extra layer of regulation could weed out some bad practices.
We're talking about collection companies that might buy defaulted debt and collect the proceeds for themselves; companies that collect defaulted debt owned by another company in return for a fee; and debt collection attorneys who collect through litigation.
Many types of debt would be covered, including third-party student loan collections involving both federal and private loans.
Here's a look at what the federal watchdog would do:
Watch and see if debt collectors are upfront, identifying themselves clearly.
Examine whether debt collectors are using accurate data. Did the consumer already pay that bill? Is this a case where the collector doesn't have the correct debt or the right consumer?
Make certain a consumer complaint and dispute-resolution process is in place.
Look into whether consumers are being harassed. Is the collector using inappropriate language? Threatening to imprison the consumer? Threatening to call the consumer's employer?
Under federal law, a debt collector may call other people but only to find out where you live, your phone number or where you work.
The CFPB notes that debt collectors generally cannot contact those people more than once. And they may not discuss your debt with anyone other than you, your spouse, your parents (if you are a minor), your guardian or your attorney.
What should consumers do if they're getting calls? First, always, always ask the collector to send something in writing, says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com.
"When the debt collector calls, say, 'Please send me written notice of the debt,'" Detweiler said.
And then after you get something in writing, she says, make sure to request that the collector send verification or validation of the debt. Further information could be disclosed as to how far the bill goes back in time or how much interest has built on the original bill.
"It gives you a little bit of time to research your options," Detweiler says.
Consumer advocates say the CFPB's new oversight could help because it would apply to companies that handle about 63% of the annual debt-collection receipts. About 175 debt collectors would be covered. Smaller firms would not fall under the bureau's jurisdiction but are covered under other regulations.
Jan Kruse, director of communications for the National Consumer Law Center, noted that about a million consumers in the U.S. are sued each year by collectors in state courts for credit card, medical and other debt. Yet often, she says, the debt isn't documented by a debt collector. The CFPB has said that a systemwide problem appears to be the accuracy of the data that debt collectors are using to pursue consumers.
A creditor may first try to collect the money but then give up and outsource the collection. The debt could change hands several times after being sold to various debt buyers. If it drags on long enough, the consumer may end up being contacted multiple times by different collectors over the life of the debt.
At issue is whether a sufficient amount of information about the debt and the consumer changes hands when the debt is first sent to a collector.
The new role of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau adds another layer of oversight, said Mark Schiffman, vice president of public affairs for ACA International or Association of Credit and Collection Professionals.
"It will reinforce the issue of documentation," he said.
Consumers who rightfully owe a debt would still have the responsibility, if able, to pay it.
But the added oversight will help in cases where people feel they're being harassed or end up being asked to pay a bill that they don't owe.
The political season may be coming to a close. But debt has a much longer shelf life, so extra oversight is a welcome sound for consumers.
(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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