Sweeping new rules governing debt collection practices in the U.S. will go into effect on November 30. Unfortunately, many of the very serious concerns about the use of electronic communications for debt collection raised by citizens, cybersecurity experts and consumer advocacy groups including Keep Me Posted (KMP) were effectively ignored by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the federal agency charged with making sure banks, lenders and other financial companies treat consumers fairly.
The widespread impacts of CFPB's new rules cannot be underestimated: Nearly 70 million Americans now have a debt in collection. That staggering number translates to nearly one in three adults with a credit report being pursued during the pandemic, according to analysis from the Urban Institute. What's more, even consumers with debts that are beyond the statute of limitations can still be pursued under the rules. Even those with no credit worries need to beware: Scammers are already using unsolicited electronic communications to perpetrate fraud, using debt collection as a pretext.
Here are nine things you need to know about the new CFPB rules and how to protect yourself against electronic fraud and abuse related to debt collection.
Will debt collectors still mail me notices? Probably not by default. Many will likely communicate electronically now, since it was the debt collection industry that pushed for these rule changes, not consumers. However, you can request to have paper notices mailed to you at an address of your choosing.
Can debt collectors call me more often now? Yes. Under the new rules, they are allowed to make up to seven attempted calls per week - per debt. So if you have one student loan and four medical accounts in collection, you could now receive up to 35 attempted calls per week in total. However, you have a right to choose how debt collectors contact you. But you must proactively express your preference for paper, phone or electronic communications in order for your choice(s) to be honored.
Are debt collectors allowed to send unsolicited emails, texts and social media messages? Yes. But you can opt out of any or all of these channels of communications. Debt collectors are required to specify a "reasonable and simple" opt-out method. Additionally, you are entitled to simply call or write back requesting certain mediums of communications be stopped, and which are preferred.
Could a debt collector really "friend" me on social media? Yes. But if the purpose for doing so is to ultimately use that platform and direct connection to send direct messages in pursuit of debt, they must disclose their intent in any friend request. You can and should deny such attempts to connect on social media.
Do I have a choice in how I will be contacted by debt collectors? Yes. After being initially contacted by either paper notice in the mail, by phone, email, text or social media direct message, you can request that further communications be made via only one or any preferred combination of these options.
Is it my responsibility to take notes over the phone about what I'm claimed to owe? No, you can and should request required collection disclosure notices in writing. While the new rules allow for oral collection notices, the increased amount of information will make it difficult to understand and remember. You should therefore ask that it be furnished in print for review and safekeeping. This includes paper notice delivered by First Class Mail or email if that is preferred.
I am not comfortable clicking links and attachments from unknown senders, but I don't want to lose my rights to challenge any debt - what should I do? It is not advisable to open any attachments or click on any links. You should research the name of the company that emailed you the notice to first determine if it is a legitimate debt collector. You can enter company URLs directly into your internet browser. You can also reply to any messages to request paper copies of validation notices - and also opt-out of future electronic communications. If you receive a notice claiming to be from a court -- or regarding a lawsuit - find the court phone number and call to confirm that the case is legitimate.
A debt collector is not honoring my communications preferences, what can I do? The CFPB is currently updating its consumer guidance on the new rules. In addition to updated resources, this page also has a link to initiate a formal complaint.
I'm getting scam emails about a debt I don't owe, can I report this? The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has volumes of resources on how to safeguard against scams, fraud, identity theft and cybersecurity threats, and they are they agency charged with receiving consumer complaints. This page dedicated to online security has guidance on most consumer threats raised by CFPB's new rules along with links to other topics, and you can find links for complaint processing here.