The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has severely transformed everyone’s lives. Many have suffered a reduction in income or job loss altogether and are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to keep with mortgage payments, credit card bills, and other debts. If you default on payments for an unsecured debt, like a credit card, department store, or medical debt, the creditor might send the debt to a collection agency. Debt collectors have a well-earned reputation for using aggressive tactics, like contacting debtors repeatedly, usually by phone, to try to get them to pay up. And, starting late next year, collectors get even more leeway to contact you by email, text, and through social media under changes to the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).
The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, and deceptive tactics when trying to collect from debtors. But when Congress passed the FDCPA into law in 1977, it didn’t take into account digital communication methods like text messages, emails, voicemails, and social media. So, considering how common these communication methods have become, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently issued a final rule amending Regulation F, which implements the FDCPA, to explain how debt collectors can use these digital communications. The rule becomes effective one year after publication in the Federal Register, likely in November 2021.
Under the final rule, a debt collector may call you up to seven times each week and send you an unlimited number of texts and email messages. The CFPB rule also confirms that debt collectors may try to contact you through social media. Exactly how collection agencies will use social media to their advantage isn’t clear yet. But the rule prohibits debt collectors from communicating or attempting to communicate through a social media platform if the message is viewable by the general public or your social media contacts. Also, if a debt collector sends you a private message through social media, say via Facebook or LinkedIn, asking to be added as one of your contacts, the collector is supposed to disclose their identity as a debt collector. Whether debt collectors will actually comply with these requirements is yet to be seen.
Considering the historic job losses and economic downturn that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, permitting multiple phone calls each week and unlimited electronic and social media communications from debt collectors will only add to the stress Americans are already experiencing.
The rule does provide some protections for debtors:
- If a collector sends you a text, email, or other electronic communication, it also has to give you a way to easily opt out of receiving those communications. The steps you’ll need to take to opt out isn’t set out in the rule, though.
- Any voicemails the collector leaves must be limited to giving the collection agency’s business name (without indicating the company is in the debt collection business), making a request that you respond to the voicemail, and providing contact information for whoever you should contact.
- A debt collector can’t communicate or attempt to communicate with you by sending an email to an email address that the debt collector knows is a work email address, subject to some exceptions.
Again, whether collectors will comply with these requirements is an open question. Keep in mind that the FDCPA prohibition on harassing conduct, like contacting you excessively, as well as a ban on communicating with you at inconvenient times or places, applies to electronic communications, such as texts and emails. If you think a debt collector has violated the FDCPA when dealing with you, consider talking to an attorney to get advice about your options.