New York is moving against abusive debt collectors and, while that is good news anywhere in the state, it is especially so in Buffalo, which has grown a debt collection industry that law enforcement and consumer groups say is rife with abuses.
How bad is it? Employees of some agencies have falsely – and illegally – claimed to be lawyers, sometimes threatening to have debtors arrested or even have their children taken away.
Only five months ago, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman shut down two Buffalo debt collectors for deceptive practices. Investigators found that the firms had lied about their credentials in order to intimidate consumers and avoid state oversight. Each was also fined $10,000.
Last week, state financial regulators also stepped in, issuing rules requiring that collectors verify all disputed claims, advise consumers when the statute of limitations has expired on debts and confirm settlement agreements in writing. Proposed regulations would also authorize consumers to choose email for communications from collectors to reduce harassing phone calls and keep better records of interactions.
It’s a serious issue. State figures show that New Yorkers filed more than 13,000 complaints about collection practices in the past 18 months.
Most problems seem to come from companies that buy defaulted debts for pennies on the dollar, then badger the debtor to pay. Complaints about them range from harassing calls to contacting the wrong people to demanding incorrect amounts of money.
Debt collection is a legitimate industry. People who borrow money and then fail to make good are cheating their creditors, the creditors’ employees and their families. There needs to be a system for pursuing those debts.
But it can’t be a free-for-all. Harassment is different from diligent and legal pursuit. Lies about the consequences of failure to pay are intolerable.
There are rules already in place. Federal law bars collectors from using or threatening violence – there’s a clue as to how bad the industry can be – or from using obscenities or profanities and calling repeatedly to harass debtors. But as Buffalo’s unfortunate reputation in this industry has shown, more rules are needed and were, in fact, inevitable. That’s always the solution when common decency is abused.
Some of the new rules will take effect upon publication in the State Register, which follows a 45-day public comment period and any revisions. Other rules will go into force 180 days later.
We suspect this won’t be the last New Yorkers hear about this issue from Schneiderman or state regulators. The miscreants in this industry understand too well that they can make a lot of money by harassing debtors. They will need continued supervision.