F.T.C. Fines a Collector of Debt $2.5 Million
The Federal Trade Commission signaled on Monday that it would continue to crack down on debt collectors who harass consumers for money they may not even be legally obligated to pay.
In the second-largest penalty ever levied on a debt collector, the F.T.C. said that Asset Acceptance, one of the nation’s largest debt collection companies, had agreed to pay a $2.5 million civil penalty to settle charges that the company deceived consumers when trying to collect old debts.
The settlement is part of a broader effort to patrol the industry, agency officials said. The commission said it had pursued eight cases related to debt collection companies over the last two years.
“Our attention to debt collection has increased over the past couple of years because the complaints have been on the rise,” said J. Reilly Dolan, assistant director for the F.T.C.’s division of financial practices.
Consumer complaints about debt collection companies consistently rank as the second-highest category among all complaints at the agency, behind identity theft. But in 2010, complaints jumped 17 percent to 140,036, which represented 11 percent of all complaints in the commission’s database, up from 119,540, or about 9 percent of complaints, in 2009.
Asset Acceptance, based in Warren, Mich., was charged with a variety of complaints, including failing to tell consumers that they could no longer be sued for failing to pay some debts because the debts were too old. The company’s collectors also failed to inform consumers that paying even a small portion of the amount owed would revive the debt — in other words, making a payment would extend the amount of time the collector could legally sue.
Debt collectors have only a certain number of years to sue consumers. The statute of limitations varies by state, but typically ranges from two to 15 years, Mr. Dolan said, beginning when a consumer fails to make a payment. But borrowers often do not realize that making a payment on the old debt may restart the clock.
Among other things, the complaint also contended that the company — which buys unpaid debts for pennies on the dollar from credit card companies, health clubs and telecommunications and utility providers and tries to collect them — reported inaccurate information about the consumers to the credit reporting agencies. It also said that Asset Acceptance failed to conduct a reasonable investigation when it was notified by one of the credit agencies that a debt was being disputed. Moreover, the complaint says that the company used illegal collection practices and that it continued to try to collect debts that consumers disputed even though the company failed to verify that the debt was valid. read more
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