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Federal Agency Says Consumers Feel Threatened By Debt Collectors

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a survey today that it says shows widespread tactics used by debt collectors to threaten consumers. The watchdog agency, which is considering strengthening regulations of the industry and its conduct, says more than a quarter of the consumers it surveyed felt threatened by the debt collectors.

"It is the most common issue that people complain about," bureau director Richard Cordray told NPR. "Debt collection is a market with real, persistent and disturbing problems."

The moves come at a time when the future of the independent agency is itself in question. The incoming Donald Trump administration and other Republicans have vowed to undercut the agency. And last fall, a federal appeals court ruled the agency's structure is unconstitutional, but said it could remedy the problem by allowing the president to fire its director at will, or by allowing it to maintain its independence, but running it as a commission.

There are nearly 70 million Americans who have been contacted by debt collectors, who are often hired by banks and other creditors to pursue repayment. The CFPB's survey found that because the creditors often sell their debts to one of 6,000 debt collection companies, the consumer data is often false; consumers are contacted about the wrong amount of debt, or about the debt of a family member. So far, the bureau has amassed 129,000 debt-collection complaints in its database.

More than half (53 percent) of consumers reported being contacted with incorrect information or the wrong amount of debt. A large minority (36 percent) of respondents in the bureau's survey said they were contacted at inconvenient times, and 40 percent said they were often repeatedly contacted by the same collector, in spite of requests to cease contact — actions which the CFPB says are in possible violation of laws preventing the harassment and abuse of consumers.

The bureau is considering rules governing debt collectors' conduct, including how they contact consumers, and how they verify their records.

Cordray says the laws were created decades ago, and need to be updated to reflect the modern marketplace. He says old, uncollected debts are traded online for tiny fractions of the amount owed. "For all we know, criminals are buying this and misusing that information for identity theft and other purposes," he says.

The distinction between the original creditor and the debt-collection industry is an important one, says the American Bankers Association. The trade group says the CFPB's survey shows the consumer experience depends on who is doing the collecting — the creditor, or a third-party debt collector.

"The report acknowledges that consumers reported more favorable experiences with creditors," said Jeff Sigmund, a spokesman for the ABA.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.