Trying to keep up with regulations in debt collection can feel overwhelming especially with new cases and federal guidance coming out regularly interpreting the law and states actively amending or creating new laws that impact debt collectors, original creditors, and current creditors.
Here are four common compliance myths and misconceptions for collections debunked (no detective work needed)!
Myth #1: Under Regulation F consumers are not protected from harassment
False! The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) absolutely prohibits harassment of consumers see 15 USC 1692d. No matter how a debt collector reaches out to a consumer, by phone call, email, SMS, voicemail, even social media—a debt collector cannot harass a consumer through one channel or through a combination of channels. Regulation F made clear that harassment is the totality of the circumstances, “the cumulative effect of all [communications – calls, emails, text messages] may constitute a violation of the harassment provision.”
Email and cell phone providers offer additional built in protections for their customers to help with rogue actors who fail to abide by the harassment provisions in the FDCPA. These service providers have their own rules and will prevent or block companies who try to harass consumers. In fact, collectors or marketers who use emails to harass will experience a less than 5% chance of their email reaching the consumer’s inbox (“inboxing rate”) essentially barring them from using email to reach consumers. Consumers have the power to not only unsubscribe (as required in Regulation F from these digital channels) but also have the power to mark inbound messages as spam which will impact the inboxing rate essentially barring abusers from the ability to deliver messages at all.
As a result, digital channels offer consumers significantly better protection from unwanted or harassing communications. Digital communications allow consumers to quickly register their preferences by clicking on an unsubscribe link or replying stop to opt out. Digital communications also offer search and archiving options, automatically creating a paper trail of communications between the consumer and the collector. There is no unsubscribe or reply stop option for calls or letters.
Myth #2: Debt collection requirements are only governed by federal laws
False! Individual states and even cities or municipalities have been implementing their own more restrictive laws governing debt collection. For example, New York law requires a debt collector to obtain consent to email a consumer about their debt, a requirement that does not exist in the federal FDCPA or Regulation F. Washington, DC just revamped their debt collection rules with new restrictions on calls, emails, texts and social media including communication caps for each of these methods that take effect on January 1, 2023 when the temporary ban on collections (implemented during the pandemic) end.
In addition to state and local debt collection rules, other regulations can apply as well, even if they aren’t specific to the industry. Some of the most anticipated regulations rolling out state-by-state focus on information security and data privacy, which greatly affect debt collection information security practices despite not being named outright.
Even if debt collection regulations are followed meticulously, businesses can still fail to meet compliance requirements if they don’t perform due diligence on other laws applicable to their operations.
Myth #3: Business must send the initial communication by letter
False! The FDCPA spells out that a debt collector must provide the validation notice in the initial communication or in writing within 5 days of that initial communication see 15 USC 1692g(a). This means that when the full validation notice is provided over the phone in the initial conversation or in the initial communication by email (as confirmed in Regulation F), a debt collector satisfied their obligation. The requirement to send the disclosure in writing is only triggered if the disclosure is not provided in the initial communication.
Fortunately, the CFPB provided a model disclosure notice in Regulation F that can be adopted to send by email and permits the use of hyperlinks. The ability to use hyperlinks in the model debt validation notice allows for consumers to communicate their preferences immediately and more effectively than when using the disclosure by US mail. For example, a consumer can use the dispute flow links in the email to explain why they are disputing the debt while looking at the additional details about the account that are visible in an online portal whereas the check boxes on the model validation letter do not allow for this flow of information and must be mailed back to the debt collector for processing. This is another example of the advantages of digital communications over letters and calls.
Myth #4: Meeting compliance obligations is more difficult for digital debt collection practices
False! As long as you have a solid team of legal compliance advisors and a mature compliance management system, digital communications actually make it easier to comply. Digital is faster (making it easier for consumers to respond or opt-out by just replying to an email or text. Digital provides a written history of communications between the consumer and the collector that can be archived automatically through existing features in email cell phone services. Digital communications are easily controlled by consumer and more tightly managed by providers, with built in mechanisms to discourage and blacklist harassers.
Plus, there are a growing number of federal court cases highlighting best-practices in digital compliance:
- The Northern District of California confirmed that the FDCPA permits providing the validation disclosures in the body of the initial communication by email
- The District of New Mexico held that whether a webpage is confusing to the least sophisticated consumer is evaluated by the totality of all linked pages in the flow
- The Eastern District of Illinois held that a reply to an email notifying the debt collector of attorney representation only applied to the specific account. Read the full case summary and key takeaways in a new write-up by TrueAccord Associate General Counsel Steve Zahn»»
The Future of Collections & Compliance
Compliance can get complex quickly, especially for debt collectors and any lender trying to recover delinquent funds—and that complexity will only continue to grow over time as technology and consumer preferences evolve. How can your business keep up today and tomorrow?