Americans with overdue debts usually face a daunting parade of punishments. First come the threatening letters. Then the relentless phone calls. And often, if debts remain unpaid, consumers end up in court, sued by collectors who hope that a favorable judgment will allow them to garnish wages or seize assets.
Fed up with what they call harassing tactics, a growing number of debtors are now suing debt collectors first. Arming themselves with consumer protection laws outlined in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, they go after collection agencies for a wide range of violations, such as automated phone calls, which are illegal, that give debt collectors a bad reputation.
"The decline of the economy is causing bill collectors to become more and more aggressive, and people are getting more desperate," says Steve Katz, a former debt collector who now runs a chat board called Debtorboard for aggrieved consumers. He points out that consumers who have lost their livelihoods often have little choice but to fight off debts in court.
There were 8,347 consumer lawsuits filed against collection agencies in 2009, a 55 percent increase over 2008 and double the number filed in 2007, according to the FDCPA Case Listing Service, an organization that tracks lawsuits.
Some consumers are first-time plaintiffs, who suddenly find themselves unable to pay debts and feel wronged by aggressive collectors. Others, usually with debts worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, sue repeatedly in the hope that favorable judgments will get collectors off their backs. Debt collectors sometimes refer to these consumers as "credit terrorists."
Laura Cinquino from Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., who was laid off from two jobs as a medical assistant last year, is a debtor who found herself in a vicious struggle with a collection agency following what seemed like a simple misunderstanding. Cinquino, who was also attending college to become a registered nurse, hadn't paid a $600 credit card bill with Washington Mutual when the bank collapsed in the financial crisis. When WaMu was taken over by JPMorgan Chase, Cinquino said, her bills started to arrive in Chase envelopes. Cinquino, who said she usually pays her bills online, disregarded the letters thinking they were related to her auto loan. So when she received a voice mail from a bill collection agency one day, she did a double-take.
Apex Financial Management declined to comment on Cinquino's case.
Spokespersons for the collection industry said that companies adhere closely to FDCPA laws, but that mistakes sometimes happen. They argue that the law is sometimes not clear on certain practices, such as whether or not it's legal to leave a voice mail.
"In some states you're found in violation (if you leave a voice mail) and in other states, it's not a violation," said Rozanne Anderson, CEO of the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals. "That doesn't mean you're a bad actor. It underscores why the FDCPA may need to be updated to reflect the needs of consumers and the use of modern technology."
She points out that in many cases, consumers sue over "technical violations."