Money & Policy

Debt Collectors: Top Complaint of Older Consumers

4 ways to fight back if you're the victim of heavy-handed dunning

Problems with debt collectors top the list of complaints that older adults have filed with the federal Consumer Protection Financial Bureau (CPFB) in the last year. 

More than one third of the 25,800 complaints filed by consumers 62 and older between August 2013 and October 2014 were about debt collectors who allegedly harassed them by phone, refused to disclose information about the debts or threatened to garnish their wages if they didn't pay up, among other things. 
Most older adults carry debt. A 2013 study by the Federal Reserve found that 79 percent of households headed by a person age 55 to 64 had debt; 66 percent of those 65 to 74 did. Add in the fact that many people in their 60s and 70s are on fixed incomes and are still reeling from the recession and you have a serious problem.

(MORE: Dirty Little Secret of Baby Boomer Debt)

Overall, the CPFB has received more than 400,000 consumer complaints since July 2011, Naomi Karp, a CFPB policy advisor told a session on elder financial abuse during the Gerontological Society of America annual scientific conference in Washington, D.C. last week. After debt collectors, the agency's other top complaint categories for people over 62 concerned mortgages (23 percent), credit reporting (12 percent ) banking services (12 percent) and credit cards (11 percent). 
Collectors Crossing the Line
The report on debt collection complaints from older consumers highlighted a few of the alleged incidents without disclosing the names of complainants or the companies accused of unethical, and sometimes criminal, behavior. Two examples:
  • One person reported that a firm demanded payment of $67,286 in student loans to a university no one in his or her family had attended. Although the actual person owing the debt had a different Social Security number and address, the debt-collector's target was told the agency would be contacting his or her employer about the money owed. 
  • A widow whose husband died in 2004 said she received repeated calls from a debt collection agency demanding that she pay her deceased husband’s medical bills. “I am now reliving watching my husband suffer years of sickness,” she said.
Almost half of those who filed complaints said they were being ordered to pay debts they didn't owe and a third said the collection agents couldn't identify the debt they were being asked to pay. The debts that could be identified covered a range of categories, with credit cards and medical services being most common followed by mortgages, auto and payday loans. 
While unpaid medical bills made up a small portion of the debt complaints, they proved especially thorny to resolve. In many cases, the report notes, the complainant believed insurance had covered the bill or that payment was still in process. In others, people said they only found out about the unpaid medical bills when they checked their credit report.

One disabled veteran told the CFPB that “the VA [Veteran's Administration] was not billed properly or on time and this resulted in 12 claims on my credit bureau report. I was unaware of the extent of the claims until I recently sought financing to install a handicap ramp to my home. …. When I contacted [the hospital] they said that I had no outstanding balance and that the VA had paid them.”

Rude, Nasty and Threatening
About a quarter of the complaints said that debt collectors used harsh communication tactics, in some cases calling them names or threatening them. The CFPB included a chart (see graphic above) in its report showing the adjectives people used to describe how they were treated by representatives of debt collection agencies or possible scammers claiming to represent collection agencies. The most common adjectives: “rude,” “abusive,” “threatening” and “nasty.”

(MORE: Get Rid of Telemarketers — for Good!)

The CFPB forwarded 3,800 of the complaints to 650 companies for review and response and got action in many cases. According to the agency's report, 92 percent of th companies who heard from the CFPB responded to the complaints by closing the case with explanation or reaching a settlement with the consumer. But the agency often couldn't track down complaints where the collector's identity wasn't known or where debts had been transferred to another company. 
Four Ways to Fight Back 
In a recent blog, Nora Dowd Eisenhower, head of CFPB's Office for Older Americans, recommended four things to do if you're being harassed by collection agencies or chargd for debts you didn't incur (her blog has links to sample letters you can send to the collection agencies):
1. Get more information if you do not recognize the debt
2. Dispute the debt if it’s not yours or if the amount is wrong
3. Demand in writing that collectors stop harassing you
4. Familiarize yourself with laws concerning federal benefits and find a lawyer if needed
In addition to the resources and tips offered by CFPB, the Federal Trade Commission provides an excellent tip sheet on dealing with debt and unscrupulous debt collectors. 
Liza Kaufman Hogan
By Liza Kaufman Hogan
Liza Kaufman Hogan is a freelance writer.@lizakhogan

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