Category Archives: Unfair Debt Collection Practices

Who is a Debt Collector after Santander Case

Debt collectors are governed by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). If you are able to make a counterclaim under that Act, you will improve your defense. Thus the questions are, who is a debt collector, and how do you show that the person suing you is one.

The Supreme Court  issued rulings in 2017 that will make it more difficult for debt defendants to obtain legal representation and will cause debt collectors to engage in more deceptive, dishonest and abusive behavior. Nevertheless, most people will still be able to sue debt collectors. We discuss how after our discussion of the Santander case.

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

When Congress passed the FDCPA, debt collectors were such a problem that they were a threat to the American way of life. The FDCPA was therefore designed to prevent fraud, deception and unfairness in general in the collection of debts. Congress named numerous specific actions as “per se” violations of the Act and also included the more general description of “unfair” debt collection practices.

It wanted to prevent debt collectors from changing the forms their actions took without changing what they were basically doing.

The Supreme Court has just reduced that Congressional intent to a farce, applying just half of the statutory definition of “debt collector” to a case and finding that, under that half of the definition, junk debt buyers were not debt collectors.

Real-Life Debt Collection

In most debt cases, creditors sell charged-off debt to debt buyers who exist to collect that money by hook or crook. They used to hire debt collectors to collect on debts and paid them from the proceeds, Creditors now get their money first and let the debt collectors take theirs from the debtors. All that has happened is that nominal ownership of the debt has changed. In other words, debt collectors have assumed a different form to pursue the very same activities.

Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that it would not allow parties to elevate form over substance to evade the impact of laws . Santander does exactly that.

One could also characterize the Court’s ruling as dishonest. It only analyzed half of the definition of “debt collectors.” In looking at Section 1692a(6), the court examined the defining language as “any person… who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.” The court’s decision then repeatedly referred to and emphasized the words “due another,” arguing that companies were only debt collectors if they fit that traditional form of collectors.

How the FDCPA Defines “Debt Collector”

Look at the part of the definition preceding the language in question to get a truer view of the statute’s clear intention.

The term “debt collector” means any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.

Section 1692a(6) (underlined portion is the part ignored by the Supreme Court in Santander, italicized word “any” is for emphasis)

Doesn’t it seem reasonable to read “any debts” literally, so that if the principal purpose of a business is to collect debts, they’re a debt collector? Of course it does, and that would obviously include businesses that exist to purchase debts and collect on them.

Supreme Court is AGAINST Debt Defendants

The Court opinion glibly slides over that, saying that “the parties haven’t much litigated that alternative definition of debt collector and in granting certiorari we didn’t agree to consider it, either.” Santander, Slip Op. at 5. In other words, the Supreme Court agreed to hear only so much of the case as allowed them to shove a dagger into the apparent heart of the FDCPA – not enough of the case to show what the FDCPA actually intended or to do justice.

In theory, the decision in Santander leaves open the possibility that this “alternative” definition would extend the meaning of “debt collector” to junk debt buyers. On the other hand, the decision looks like a court in search of a justification for a desired outcome, and is a negative indication for the Court’s integrity. Particularly in the context of its decision in Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17) (see my article, “Opening the Floodgates of Bad Claims”), it shows actual hostility to the laws that protect consumers from debt collectors and a willingness to engage in intellectually dishonest games to destroy them. As a practical matter, it will likely be several years before the Supreme Court revisits the definition of “debt collector.”

Pleading that a Junk Debt Buyer is a “Debt Collector”

The Supreme Court limited its decision to the “regularly collected” language. Why? Probably because debt defendants have normally found it easy to prove a company “regularly collected” debts. In the Eighth Circuit, law firms representing collectors in three to five cases per year are“regularly collecting” debts.

Under fact pleading rules, one must plead facts constituting a basis for your legal conclusion. So debt defendants routinely allege something like the following:

Heartless, Ruthless and Merciless, represent debt collectors in dozens of lawsuits attempting to collect debts per year. They are, therefore, debt collectors, and

Heartless Debt Collector, Inc., regularly sues persons for debts purchased after default…

Use of “Regularly Collects” Debts Language

Debt defendants have typically used “regularly collected” because it is easy to demonstrate as a matter of public record. Establishing a business’s “principal purpose” will now be much more difficult. My attempts to find an authoritative definition for “principal purpose” of a business turned up zero cases. No doubt there are some cases that address the issue, but certainly not many.

Many court decisions include the term “principal purpose.”  But they use it generically, as a synonym for “main” or “major.”

I found no cases quantifying the term in any way. So it isn’t clear how much of any other purpose would be enough.

Debt buyers who purchase billions of dollars of debt for no other purpose than to collect it. But they will argue that their “principal purpose” is to “service” that debt. In their lexicon that really means extort payment in as many ways, over as long a period, as possible. But they will claim all manner of beneficial purposes for their activities.

This will alter the nature of the proof required to establish that the company is a debt collector. Information regarding a business’s “principal purpose” will be in the possession of the debt collector. Thus parties attempting to obtain that information will encounter the usual tricks when they try to get it. Expect the same series of stone walls, delays and unethical and oppressive litigation strategies debt collectors usually use. (Fortunately, this can be a double-edged sword. We train our members at Your Legal Leg Up to use this to their advantage.)

Debt defendants must now allege and attempt to prove the debt collector’s main business is to collect debts.

What Debt Defendants Should Do

Debt defendants have all the same defenses to debt lawsuits they ever did – or almost all of them. Santander applies very little to the defense of debt suits.

To state claims under the FDCPA, you need to allege the company’s principle business is the collection of debts. You should probably allege they buy debts from others for the purposes of collection. And that they provide no significant service to the debtors.

Verification of Debt – Don’t Let the Right Turn You into a Sucker

Don’t be a Verification Sucker – Request for Verification is NOT a Substitute for an Answer

 

Debt verification (also called “validation”) of your debt is an important right. If the debt collector brings suit, though, it’s too late. Demanding validation will NOT prevent a default judgment if you try it after the debt collector brings suit. In fact, a lawsuit does NOT trigger the right to verification at all.

People in debt trouble hear a lot about debt validation, and it can be a valuable right. Even though it requires little from the debt collector, making the demand seems to cause some debt collectors to go away. It will at least send a signal to the debt collector that you will defend your rights.

If the debt collector has filed suit, you must defend the lawsuit and file an answer (or appropriate motion) in court. If you don’t answer, the debt collector usually gets a default judgment. That effectively ends your rights to fight the debt.

That’s because, under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), filing suit is not an “initial contact” for purposes of verification. Validation is designed to keep debt collectors from suing the wrong people. After they file suit, it’s too late for that. Instead, the courts will decide.

Or so goes the legal precedent. The debt collectors know – and we all know – that most people do not protect themselves in court.

Make sure you do. You have to file an answer or the appropriate motion to do this.

Conclusion

When a debt collector (or creditor) files suit against you, you will have to file an answer in court to avoid a default judgment. Many people think all they have to do is “dispute the debt and request verification.” The right to verification, however, applies only to collection efforts that are not part of a lawsuit. Don’t be a verification sucker – file an Answer and defend yourself.

Henson v. Santander – Supreme Court Attacks the FDCPA

In Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., (“Santander”), the Supreme Court hurt the FDCPA and attacked the rights of consumers. Its ruling means that the FDCPA will no longer apply to most debt collectors. This decision will make it far more difficult for debt defendants to obtain legal representation. And it will cause debt collectors to engage in more deceptive, dishonest and abusive behavior.

If you are facing debt collectors, you should know your rights and may need to defend yourself pro se.

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) became law In 1978. Debt collectors were so corrupt and destructive  Congress they were a “threat to the American way of life.”  Congress named numerous specific actions as “per se” violations of the Act. It also included the more general descriptions of “unfair,” “unconscionable,” and “deceptive” debt collection practices as illegal actions. Congress wanted to keep debt collectors from changing the forms their actions took without changing what they were basically doing.

The Supreme Court has just reduced that Congressional intent to a farce. Its ruling in Santander guarantees more dishonest, careless and abusive debt collection techniques. It means consumers and honest businesses will support the worst scavengers in the world.

Real-Life Debt Collection

Instead of holding it for collection, creditors usually sell charged-off debt to debt buyers these days. When debt buyers buy a debt, their only purpose is to collect that money by hook or by crook. Creditors used to hire debt collectors to collect on debts and pay them out of the proceeds. Now they get their money first. The debt collectors take their money from the debtors. All that has happened is that nominal ownership of the debt has changed. In other words, debt collectors have assumed a different form to pursue the very same activities.

Henson et al. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc.

The Supreme Court has not allowed parties to change the form of their actions to evade the impact of laws. Santander cheerfully elevates form over substance, however. The same actors will perform the same abhorrent deeds that the FDCPA was designed to prevent.

One could consider the Court’s ruling dishonest in that it only analyzed half of the definition of “debt collectors.” In looking at Section 1692a(6), the court examined the defining language as “any person… who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.” The decision then repeatedly referred to and emphasized the words “due another,” arguing that companies were only debt collectors if they fit that traditional form of collectors. In the Supreme Court’s view, debts which had long belonged to another but were sold for purposes of collection, change their nature when sold. Junk debt buyers are collecting on their own debts, not debts due another.

How the FDCPA Defines “Debt Collector”

We should look at the whole definition of “debt collector” to get a truer view of the statute’s intention.

The term “debt collector” means any person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.

Section 1692a(6) (underlined portion is the part ignored by the Supreme Court in Santander, italicized word “any” is for emphasis).

The Court ignored the underlined portion of the definition because the debt collector at issue in the case was a bank. The parties agreed that Santander’s principal purpose was not the “collection of debts.” But the Court should not have ignored that portion of the definition, as its broadness showed congressional intention to get all “functional” debt collectors. Taking note of that intent, the Court should have read “debts owed… to another” to keep their substance despite the debt’s sale. Doing so would have prevented debt collectors from changing the NATURE of the debt merely by selling it to another party. This would have honored congressional intent and protected consumers.

Why the Court Did What it Did

Why didn’t the Supreme Court look at the whole statutory definition of “debt collector?”

The surface reason was that Santander was a bank – and the parties agreed that its business was not principally collecting debts. But that’s really only the surface fact. It would not have stopped the Court from considering the entire definition to garner congressional intention. And it wouldn’t have prevented the Court from giving a reasoned decision on the whole statute anyway. The Supreme Court grants certiorari only in a very small percentage of cases, and it has had numerous opportunities to examine the whole reality of debt collection. It chose the issue it wanted to address deliberately.

Plaintiffs in FCPA cases have usually relied on the “regularly collecting” debts language because it is easier to show than “principal purpose.”

Establishing a business’s “principal purpose” will be much more difficult. Few case use the term “principal purpose” of a business. While there must be some cases that address the issue, there are not many. Courts often use the the term “principal purpose” in judicial decisions, but its use is primarily generic.  Opinions use the words  as a synonym for “main” or “major.” I found no cases quantifying the term in any way.

“Principal Purpose” Is Hard to Prove

Junk debt buyers, who purchase billions of dollars of debt for no other purpose than to collect it in any way they can, will argue they are not debt collectors. They will claim their “principal purpose” is to “service” that debt. In their lexicon that really means extort payment in as many ways, over as long a period, as possible.

Or they will make up some other reason or claim.

This will alter the nature of the proof required to establish that the company is a debt collector. Rather than being a matter of public record, information regarding a business’s “principal purpose” will be in the possession of the debt collector. That means that parties attempting to obtain that information will have to use discovery to find it. Thus they will encounter the same stone walls, delays and unethical and oppressive litigation techniques they encounter in their other discovery attempts.

Considering the current ideology and integrity of the Supreme Court, of which debt collectors are very well aware, who knows what the courts will officially “believe?” As a debt defendant, you must now allege and prove that the debt collector’s main business is to collect debts. The judicial wind will be in your face.

Reading the Supreme Court

In theory, the decision in Santander leaves open the possibility that this “alternative” definition would extend the meaning of “debt collector” to junk debt buyers. The decision shows a court in search of a justification for a desired outcome – you should view it as a negative indication for the Court’s integrity.

Santander and another recent case, Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17) (see my article, “Opening the Floodgates of Bad Claims”), show actual hostility to the laws that protect consumers. They also show a willingness to engage in intellectually dishonest games to destroy them. As a practical matter, it will likely be several years before the Supreme Court revisits the definition of “debt collector” and applies the entire definition to the question of junk debt buyers.

What Debt Defendants Should Do

Debt defendants have almost all the same defenses to debt lawsuits they ever did. Santander applies very little to the defense of debt suits.

On the other hand, many and perhaps most lawyers are going to be scared away from taking debt cases. Many lawyers who do not understand Santander will simply regard the FDCPA as not applying to junk debt buyers. That is almost all the debt collectors in litigation these days. These lawyers won’t take debt defense cases or will charge much more for them. They will accomplish much less than they would have, too, because they will not counterclaim on your behalf. Lawyers who understand Santander will charge more and warn clients that winning is less likely than it used to be.

This means that far more debt defendants will be on their own.

Expect to see a motion to dismiss based on Santander if you currently have a counterclaim under the FDCPA. I believe you will want to amend your counterclaim to include the “principal purpose” language mentioned above. You will also need to conduct discovery designed to prove the company’s principal purpose.

Bankrupts Beware, FDCPA No Longer Applies – Opening the Floodgates to Bad Claims

Debtors often see bankruptcy as one refuge from debt collectors, but the Supreme Court has recently made things much worse. In Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17), the Court held that filing outdated claims in bankruptcy court does not violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). If you are in bankruptcy or considering it, this is huge. It could mean having to pay more if you file for bankruptcy than if you don’t.

What Bankruptcy Does

In general, if your debts get too bad, you can file bankruptcy and force all your creditors to stop contacting you. They have to file claims in your bankruptcy action, and the court will either “allow” those claims or deny them. If the court allows a claim, you will have to pay some fraction of it (or all of it). The court then determines the amount of payments you must make, over what period of time, and you do your best to do that.

If you succeed, you will receive a “discharge” – this eliminates all the debts disallowed and the fraction of your debts that you don’t have to pay under the plan. This is this “fresh start” that lures most people into the bankruptcy process.

It isn’t an easy path, and most bankruptcies are dismissed without “discharge.”  I have often taken the position that bankruptcy is NOT an appropriate solution for most people facing debt collectors. See my  article, Is Bankruptcy the Best Option for you? and  Bankruptcy May Not Be the Best Option When Sued for Debt, for example. The Supreme Court has made that analysis even more powerful.

Courts Allow Uncontested Claims

The dirty little secret of bankruptcy is that if claims are not disputed, the courts generally allow them. In bankruptcy cases of people without much money, the lawyers representing the bankrupts have little (personal) incentive to dispute wrongful claims. They get their pay out of the scanty resources of their clients.

The U.S. trustee who oversees the process should protect the bankrupt and legitimate creditors from bad claims, but guess what?They often don’t. Likewise, the court should winnow out bad claims, but given the number of bankruptcies and their complexity, they often do not.

Under current realities, poor people pay a lot of bad claims.

Junk Debt Buyers Seek to Exploit the System

Enter the junk debt buyers to make things much worse. They buy vast amounts of LONG overdue debt – debt far beyond the statute of limitations – and file claims in bankruptcy cases. This bogs the bankruptcy courts, the trustees, and bankruptcy lawyers down. The more bad claims they file, the more get through because of carelessness. They should NEVER get through, because an unenforceable claim should ALWAYS be denied under bankruptcy rules. But they often do.

The Trap of Res Judicata

Paying some part of bad claims in bankruptcy is bad, but what happens if your bankruptcy, like most, ends without discharge. What if, for some reason you fall short and don’t get your “fresh start?” What happens then?

Res judicata is the rule that if an issue has been, or could have been decided by a court, it can’t be relitigated.  If a bankruptcy court has allowed a claim – even if it did so by mistake or simply because it was not disputed, you may not be able to dispute the claim in another court later.  And even if a claim would have been illegal to bring in a state court originally, if you file bankruptcy and the claim is allowed, you will probably have to pay full value on the claim later.

Bad claims hurt the chances of the bankrupts to get their fresh start. They hurt the chances of the legitimate creditors to get paid. And they make the whole process stink to high heaven of injustice. Allowing a bunch of hoodlums in fancy suits to steal wholesale from the poor damages the legal system at its very core.

The FDCPA used to offer some protection against that, but the Supreme Court negated that protection with its holding in Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson, No. 16-348 (Slip Op. 5-15-17). In that case, the Court ruled that debt collectors could file claims in bankruptcy that would be illegal if filed in other courts.

Midland Funding, LLC v. Johnson

The relevant facts in Midland Funding are very simple. Midland, a junk debt buyer, was buying extremely old debts for very small amounts of money. They were using these debts, which were far beyond the statutes of limitations, as the basis for many claims in bankruptcy. Johnson opposed and got the claim in that case disallowed, and then filed suit in district court under the FDCPA, alleging that the claim had been unfair or unconscionable. The essence of Johnson’s claim was that filing obviously time-barred claims in a bankruptcy proceeding was an unfair debt collection practice.

The Supreme Court ruled that it was not.

There is no need to review (here) the tortured logic that effectively immunizes from consequences the intentional doing of something that never, under any circumstances, should be allowed. The state of the law simply is this: debt collectors can file obviously unenforceable claims in bankruptcy without worrying about the FDCPA. That means there’s a big risk that you will pay them if you aren’t looking out for them.

Result Possibly Different if you Allege Deception

There is perhaps one glimmer of light in this very bad decision. The Supreme Court was addressing “obviously outdated” claims. What Midland was doing was buying obviously unenforceable claims and hoping they would be overlooked and erroneously allowed. While this obviousness is one main way a debt collector’s intention to file outdated claims would be known, the obviousness was also a reason the Court found that the claims were not “deceptive.” What if the claims were known to be outdated by the debt collector but were not obviously so? Facts like that, or similar facts tending to show some actual intent to deceive would present difficult evidentiary issues, but the case could arise and might tip the balance in the other direction.

Conclusion

What the Midland Funding case means is that even if you’re in bankruptcy you’re going to have to know and protect your own rights. Your lawyer has VERY LITTLE incentive to challenge bad claims. The U.S. Trustee and court probably won’t protect you either.

If the claims are allowed, you will probably have to pay them. That means that even if you file for bankruptcy you must be prepared to defend yourself against the debt collectors. You will AT LEAST need to know your rights, and you will very probably have to defend them pro se. You’re probably not going to get much help from your lawyer on this one.

Excuses in Debt Defense Will Lose Your Case

Making excuses will lose your case
Making excuses will lose your case

Sincerity vs. Integrity

Making excuses in debt law cases is a good way to lose your case.

The “iron law of cause and effect” applies to everything. What this means is that, for every action, something happens as a result. No matter why it happened, if it does happen, there are consequences. There are no free lunches. Ever.

You know that. But it’s easy to forget when things get tough.

We pretend the iron law of cause and effect does not apply to us all the time. If we’re late, we apologize, and that’s usually enough to get past the other person’s anger or hurt feelings. If we apologize sincerely enough or give enough good reasons, it seems like we get away with it. But it isn’t called the “iron law” for nothing. Even if the other person excuses us, he thinks we are less dependable. And if the other person doesn’t, we think of it ourselves. Consequences.

Sincerity means not intending to do harm. Integrity means not doing it. Know the difference.

Substantive Law of Debt

If a debt collector can prove you borrowed money and didn’t pay it back, it should get a judgment against you. And if you don’t make them prove their case, they will get their judgment. Simple as that. They call that “strict liability,” which means that WHY you didn’t pay does not matter.

On the other hand, there are events that can destroy a debt. Showing payment, that it was based on fraud, or settlement to name a few, will attack the debt. But if the debt isn’t destroyed, no amount of sincerity will get you off the hook. It doesn’t matter how much you wanted to pay. It doesn’t matter how much you tried to pay. Or whether you tried at all.

It’s surprising how often people get mad at debt collectors for trying to collect debts they (the people involved) can’t afford to pay. Just because the debt collector has a ton of money doesn’t mean they won’t or shouldn’t get a judgment against you. Don’t think that way.

Instead, fight and make them prove their case if they can. Require them to prove the debt and their right to it. Luckily, they aren’t so good at that.

Excuses in Litigation

We’ve been talking about the substantive law of debt, which is almost absolute,. It’s a little murkier when you talk about procedures such as responding to motions and the like. There, excuses CAN make a difference – sometimes. If you make a mistake in doing something, this can sometimes be excused. Likewise, if you make a mistake, you should certainly try to get it excused. The sincerity of your excuse will matter then, so make it good and say it with feeling. And you might get away with it.

But even if you do get away with it, every mistake has consequences. As a pro se defendant, you work mighty hard to get the judge to take you and your words seriously. You want the judge to apply the law fairly and consistently – that’s really all you need in most debt cases to win.

Follow the Rules – Don’t Ask for Breaks

Any time you ask the judge for something special or make some kind of excuse, you will hurt your chances of the court taking you seriously and holding the debt collector to the rules. And all too often, the court will not give you the break it probably should. Thus you should always work your hardest and do your very best to understand the law and rules of your court. As much as possible, you NEVER want to ask the judge for anything she isn’t supposed to do.

And to get your best, you must give your best. Never make excuses for yourself, and never accept them from yourself. It’s impossible to be perfect, but try not to make any mistakes you don’t have to make. That isn’t a cliche or boring old saying – it’s encouragement to you to work your @ss off. The only way to avoid making mistakes is by figuring out things ahead of time and always going the extra mile. You can get away with doing less in some parts of your life, but you often cannot in litigation.

 

 Get Help

If you would like us to take a look at your case and give you a sort of road map to what you need to do and how, take a look at our Personalized Evaluation product. If a debt collector is suing you and you already know you want to defend yourself without spending a lot of money on lawyers, then get our Debt Defense System.

Protect Your Rights

Even if you are reading this article late in the game, shortly before trial, and you are not already a member, you should consider doing so. We have materials helpful to last minute defense and trial preparation even if you are facing this rule.

If it’s a little earlier in the lawsuit, or if no has filed suit yet, you have many other options. Membership can present you many benefits and help you win your case. Or you could check out some of our e-courses.

 

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Never Make Partial Payments on Old Debts

Partial payments are almost always a bad idea on old debts. They (almost) never accomplish anything good for your relationship with the creditor or for your credit report. And they can cause massive problems for you because they revive the debt.

What You Should Do If You Get Called on an Old Debt

What you should do is find out who, exactly, is calling you. Find out the company and the individual. Then listen to what they say. If it is convenient, record the conversation. If not, take notes. Ask questions.

What You Should NOT Do

A 20 year old debt, not paid for 20 years, is beyond all statutes of limitations in all jurisdictions of which I am aware. However, you still “owe” the debt in some theoretical way. It remains a “debt,” and that turns out to be important. That’s because it can still be “revived” by any kind of payment.

You should know that they can’t sue you for such an old debt unless you revive it.  They can’t hurt your credit report if you don’t pay it. And they can’t do anything good for you if you do pay it.

In my opinion, you should never pay such a debt. Unless you have a particular reason. A good reason might be that you need to do business with them and they have a policy of not doing so if you owe them money (utility companies are like this).  So those situations might be different, but you still need to be careful.

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

Just listen to what the debt collector says.

Let’s say he threatens to sue or tells you anything contrary to the above about hurting or repairing your credit. That would violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). It is illegal for a debt collector to threaten you with action that he either does not intend to do or could not legally do. It is also illegal to deceive you about what he might do FOR you.

Suppose, however, he tells you that they can’t sue you, but that you still owe the money, and “wouldn’t it feel better” to pay it? Some people might say they have no money, and so the debt collector tells them, “No problem, you can just make a partial payment. Then, if you ever get any more money, you can pay some more…”

That also violates the FDCPA in my opinion because it is deceiving you and trying to take advantage of something most people don’t know. If you give someone a gift and say you’ll give them more later, that creates no obligation to pay. If you make a partial payment on a “debt,” you revive the debt and can be sued on it again. Even one that is many years past the statute of limitations and beyond causing you any harm,

Suggesting Partial Payments is Sneaky

Debt collectors are often trained to take advantage of people’s ignorance and to suggest partial payments on debts that are beyond the statute of limitations. If they try to get you to do that without telling you that you will revive the debt by doing so, they are misleading you. And that violates the FDCPA.

Partial Payments Revive Old Debts

By making the partial payment, you will revive the debt against you in its entirety, allowing the company to harass and sue you, and possibly even to damage your credit report again. Never, ever do it. Instead, take careful notes, and then go find an FDCPA lawyer to sue them.

If they get it all right and tell you that a partial payment would revive the right to sue you, tell them to go away and never call again. If they do, get a lawyer and sue them for that.

Other things to know

Partial payments will not just revive a statute of limitations after it has passed – it will extend it if it has not passed. Thus if the debt is five years old and getting close to the statute of limitations, your part payment will start the clock ticking again all over.

If you are being harassed or sued for a debt and need more information, be sure to check out our products and materials at Your Legal Leg Up. We have everything you need to protect  your rights.

Avoiding Service of Process in Debt Collection Cases

Avoiding the Process Server in Debt Collection Cases

The nearly universal advice of process servers and collection lawyers is that you should never attempt to avoid service of process. Many lawyers who represent people being chased by debt collectors also recommend the same thing. Is this good advice, though?

That depends.

Avoiding Process Could Make them Dismiss the Suit

Debt collectors are usually not the most energetic litigants, and anything that increases their costs of suit makes them think twice. On the other hand, getting you served by alternate means is not extremely difficult or expensive for them. Our conclusion is that avoiding the process server can have some benefits, but there are risks and costs. You must pay attention to the lawsuit if you avoid service.

Purpose and Effect of Service of Process

For a court to obtain jurisdiction, the plaintiff must serve you with the lawsuit. This is because of a constitutional requirement of “notice” any time the state exercises judicial power against a person.[1] The most effective form of service is physically handing a copy of the lawsuit to the defendant. The process server gives you the suit, fills out an “affidavit of service” (sworn statement you got it), and the case proceeds.

Is it Possible to Avoid the Process Server?

Given the lives most of us lead, it is not practical to avoid the process server if the process server is determined and a little bit resourceful. Many, and perhaps most, of them are, but debt collection is characterized by a factory approach at every level. You have a better chance of avoiding service of debt collection cases than other kinds of cases.

Even for process servers, time is money, and a very significant number of cases are dismissed for failure to obtain service. This is at least partly because so many debtors move from place to place – process servers are never sure whether you’re still living where they’re trying to find you, and they hate to waste the time looking if you aren’t.

Personal Service is NOT Required

Getting you physically served is obviously not always possible, and it isn’t always required.

Under some circumstances, other ways of serving the suit can be allowed. What these other things are is established by state law but can include giving the suit to certain members of your household, or serving you through mail or “publication” (which is basically advertising in a legal publication). None of these things would normally require any sort of acknowledgment by you to be effective – which means that the suit could go forward whether or not you ever heard about it. If you avoid service, this is the risk you take.

It is also true that publishing something in a legal periodical, for example, will not quickly (or ever) come to your attention. Unless you are looking for it.

Avoiding Process Server

Let’s consider the crudest way to avoid the process server. The service processor meets you in front of your house, says “Are you Mr. Smith,” and when you say “yes,” attempts to hand you the lawsuit. You run away without accepting it.

That would be considered “constructive service” – in the eyes of the law, you are “served” when you are offered the suit regardless of whether you take it or not. If you run away after the introduction and offer, you have probably been served. How far does that go? What if you see the process server and run away before the introduction, and the process server never gets closer than 20 feet? Or what if you see the process server coming and close and lock the door? He knocks and introduces himself, but you don’t answer or make a sound?

These are gray areas in the law. As a practical matter, sometimes the process server will swear that he served you, and the court will accept that unless you challenge it. Process servers do NOT always tell the truth. On the contrary, they frequently lie, and if they claim, rightly or wrongly, that you have been served, our suggestion, usually, is to defend yourself from the lawsuit.

Evading Service

What if you move to a different residence? Will that prevent the process server from finding you?

It might, and the wisdom of this would depend largely on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you don’t mind being served by publication, and you’re just hoping that the collectors won’t find you to collect the money, then moving might be effective. They have plenty of ways to find you even if you move, but the practical fact is that they often don’t spend the money.  A judgment would hurt you, though, in various ways other than just collection.

Of course, it is also very possible that if you move the debt collector will just drop the case – they often do.

If you think you may be getting sued sometime, it makes sense to watch the courts and see if you are. If you find that you are being sued, then the next question is whether they ever claim to have served you. Watch for that – if they do make that claim, then you will need to do something about it or else they’ll get a default judgment.

avoiding process server has a price
avoiding process server has a price

The Cost of Avoiding the Process Server

Process servers are one of the things that people hate most about being in debt. You never feel safe about  opening your door, you worry about strangers, and you’re afraid to answer your phone. As we discuss below, if you are being chased by a debt collector, there is no need to be afraid – you can and should win that case. We don’t suggest that you try to make the process server’s job easier, but there’s nothing to fear and no need to hide from strangers.

What if it Just Happens – they Just Never Reach You

We think you should never go out of your way to make things convenient or easy for the process server. It’s their job to get you. If they can’t do it, that isn’t legally your problem and in fact will benefit you.

Sometimes they leave you a note asking you to come get the suit or asking when you’ll be around to be served. You probably don’t have to answer and probably shouldn’t. This trick does show a willingness to use cunning and trickery, though. You must be careful that the process server doesn’t lie about serving you. Again, process servers often lie.

What to Do

The chief danger, once you have been sued, is that the debt collector will claim you have been served . If you have become alerted to a suit against you, you should monitor the case and see if that happens. Sometimes it will happen, but often it will not, and where it does not, the case will eventually be dismissed.

When it does happen, however, you will need to take action to defend yourself. Until it is dismissed, you must not forget about the case even if they never serve you. You are gaining some time. Use it to learn how to defend yourself. Or use it to put yourself in a better position to settle or win the case.

What Are You Running From

We have treated debt lawsuits as a danger and suggested that avoidance is not always a bad idea. It will result in delay of the suit and sometimes its complete dismissal, both of which are good things.

Lawsuits are always dangerous and usually expensive, so we’re confident our approach makes sense. On the other hand, lawsuits are not all the same. Your chance of winning a suit brought by a junk debt buyer is very good. Debt collectors would lose almost all their cases if they were fairly run and intelligently fought. Many original creditors should lose their cases, too. So fighting is a good idea.

Don’t make the process servers’ jobs easier. But if they do get it done, you should certainly not lose heart. Fighting will give you an excellent chance of winning. Even if you can’t win, fighting will still delay the suit and improve your chances of settling on better terms.

[1] In cases of real estate and certain other things, the thing being sued over – your apartment, for example, in an eviction action – is considered the “defendant” in the eyes of the law. Stapling or taping a notice of suit on the door, perhaps adequately serves the house.

Verification or Validation – Using Both FDCPA and FCRA to Protect Your Rights

A smart person disputes and requires verification
A smart person disputes and requires verification

Verification under the FDCPA and FCRA – Use Both to Protect Your Rights

Three are two kinds of verification. Knowing and using them both can help protect your rights. Both the FDCPA and the Credit Reporting Act give you rights of verification. They are different, though, and you can use both. You probably should.

Two Kinds of Verification and How to Use them to Protect Your Rights

We have spent much of our time talking about “verification” on our site and videos. What we have usually meant has been the “verification” process provided by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). But there is another kind of validation you can use – validation as permitted by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

We talk about that below and discuss how you can use both forms of validation, together or separately, in defending yourself from the debt collectors and in repairing your credit.

Verification under FDCPA and FCRA are Different

The two kinds of verification are different rights. They apply in different circumstances, to possibly different “persons” under different circumstances. They also give different rights and have different time requirements.

You can use them both, but they are completely separate. It is important to keep them straight.

Make sure you keep track of everything you do under either statute. And you need to make sure that the response you get is appropriate for the specific right you invoke.

Rights under the FDCPA

Under the FDCPA, when a debt collector first contacts you it is required by law to notify you of your right to dispute the debt and require “validation.”  The two words (validation and verification) are used interchangeably, and the requirement is quite simple in general.

  • First, the debt collector must notify you within five days of your right to dispute within 30 days. It must also give the “mini-Miranda” warning – that anything you say may be used for collection of a debt.
  • And then, the debt collector must “verify” the debt if you ask within the thirty days provided.

Just to make clear, it is YOU who have 30 days to dispute after getting the notice of your rights. The debt collector does not literally even have to do anything at all and also has no time limit. However, if you dispute and request verification, it cannot make further attempts to collect on the debt until it has verified it.

Exactly what verifying it is, is not exactly clear.

It would appear that contacting the original creditor and “establishing” that the debt is yours would be enough. The purpose of the requirement is not to require a separate lawsuit, but just to protect consumers from harassment based on typos or mistaken identities. The debt collector has to take some action to connect you to the debt if you dispute it under the FDCPA.

Even this low burden often seems to be too much for the debt collector. Possibly that is because the second owner of the debt (if there is one) has no relationship to the original creditor and simply cannot get the debt verified.  Whatever the reason, asking for verification is often enough to make them go away. If they try to collect without having verified, that violates the FDCPA. And that in turn might allow you to stop a lawsuit brought against you.

Remember, however, that when the debt collector immediately files suit against you, this is not a “first contact” which triggers your right to notice and dispute. If you get served, you have to answer (or move to dismiss). It is not enough to request verification.

Disputing under the Fair Credit Reporting Act

There is another kind of validation, and it is completely different from the FDCPA. You can still can use it to fight debt collectors, thought. It is the validation provided for by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

This is your right to “dispute” a harmful item on your credit report.

You do this after looking at your credit report and seeing something that is not positive. Let’s say you see a debt collector reporting that you owe a debt. Remember your right to verification under the FDCPA comes when the debt collector first contacts you to try to collect the debt. You can dispute a line item on your credit report at any time.

There are rules, and there are better and worse ways to do it. But the Credit Reporting Act does not depend on the other side being a debt collector or having tried to collect the debt. It simply requires that they have put some bad information on your credit report.

When you seek verification under the FDCPA, the debt collector has to verify the debt before making further attempts to collect. When you “dispute” the debt under the FCRA, it doesn’t affect collection. Instead, you are forcing the company to “investigate” the debt and show that what it is telling credit reporting agencies is true.

What FCRA Accomplishes

If the company reporting you cannot validate the debt, it is just required to withdraw the offending credit reference. But it could still try to collect the debt.

If it does keep trying to collect the debt after withdrawing a bad credit reference, that might be a type of admission that it can’t prove the debt if the case goes to a lawsuit.

But it probably isn’t controlling on the case because “validation” of a credit report is not

the same thing as proving that the debt is valid.

A Helpful Strategy

Here’s a strategy that might be helpful. If you receive a bill from a junk debt buyer – a company that bought your debt from the original creditor, in other words – you should

send a request for verification under the FDCPA right away. Then you should and get your credit report and look at it.

If the debt collector is reporting your debt on your credit report, you will want to dispute the credit report and seek validation under the FCRA. Separately.

Remember these are completely different rights. Your sending two different disputes may confuse the debt collector, so that may be good for you. Remember that under the FDCPA it must provide proof as to your identity and its right to bug you, while under the FCRA it must explain why the information it put on your credit report was correct. If the debt collector does not verify under the FCRA,  you can clear your credit report.

FCRA Dispute May be Helpful to Debt Defense

If a debt collector  DOES try to validate, it will probably give you information that it would object to having to provide in a law suit. So it’s a shortcut to some discovery in that situation.

Using FDCPA and FCRA

You should not try to do the FCRA verification first because it takes too much time.

To do the credit dispute right you have to get your credit report and dispute it with the credit bureau before you dispute it with the debt collector under the FCRA if you want to protect all your rights. You don’t have time to work your way through the FCRA before asserting your FDCPA rights.

On the other hand, if the company does not verify under the FDCPA, that would be worth mentioning as a basis for your credit dispute.

We should add that when you get the first letter from the debt collector you may not even know whether it is reporting you on your credit report. They often do not, so you won’t know whether or not you will have anything under the FCRA. But if they are contacting you, you have the right under the FDCPA. Since it only lasts for 30 days, you need not to delay in disputing.

We always recommend sending your disputes by certified mail (and keep all the proof). You don’t have to do this legally, but these things often come down to a question of what you can prove, and having proof from the postal service is a very good investment.

 

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is the centerpiece of legal protections for debtors against debt collectors. The law passed in its essential form in 1977, and its goal was to protect debtors against the abuses of debt collectors. This article discusses what makes this law great, and some of its limitations.

Doyoutrust

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)  was enacted to put an end to some of the worst practices of the debt collection industry. It’s been a very good law, but the debt collectors are still doing many of the things the law was designed to prevent. You may be able to sue them or stop them from suing you.

The Debt Collection Industry

Before the act, the debt collection industry routinely engaged in the most abusive sorts of behavior imaginable. They would call debtors at all hours of the day or night and subject them to streams of cursing and name-calling. They would discuss their debt with children, neighbors, and employers. Debt collectors also frequently misrepresented themselves as attorneys and threatened legal action which they were powerless to initiate. And they often attempted to, and did, collect debts that either never existed or were long unenforceable because of statutes of limitation or bankruptcy.

Whatever the staid spokespeople of the debt collection industry may say, this is the background of their industry. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. Section 1692, et seq., was enacted to put a stop to these extreme behaviors in 1977.

But debtors are underrepresented by lawyers, however. And there has been an explosion of debt over the past decade. Thus, many of the old abuses still continue.

The FDCPA: A Pretty Good Law

Nevertheless, the FDCPA is in many ways a model piece of legislation. What makes the law so powerful is that, in addition to making certain enumerated acts illegal, the Act also more generally makes acts that are “oppressive,” “false or misleading representations,” or “unfair practices” illegal. This means that, whereas in most laws, the would-be wrongdoer is free to craft his actions around the specific language of the law and find “loopholes,” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, at least, the consumer may argue that these actions are still unfair or oppressive. The Supreme Court has ruled that an “unfair” act can be shown by demonstrating that it is “at least within the penumbra” of some common law, statutory “or other established concept” of unfairness.

That’s pretty broad. The price for this flexibility, however, is that the remedies—what you get if you prove the case—are less powerful. And this may be why the practices are still occurring today.

As mentioned above, there are specific actions enumerated in the FDCPA, and these include most notably, suing on expired debts, filing suit in distant jurisdictions, publishing certain types of information regarding the debtor, calling outside of specified hours. And the list goes on. If the debt collector is acting in some highly offensive way, chances are he’s within the specific provisions of the Act. These can be found at 15 U.S.C. 1692c, d, e and f. You can find the specifics by Googling the Act or provision and determining whether the specific action you’re concerned about is within one of these provisions.