30. General Information. Debt collection is regulated by Federal law, state law, and Marine Corps Regulation. These laws and regulations are routinely violated, in part because people do not know their rights. Aggrieved consumers are urged to report violations to Legal Assistance Office, and on line to the North Carolina Attorney General and to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Those in the chain of command receiving unlawful debt collection phone calls or unlawful debt collection correspondence are urged to report such unlawful actions and to provide the Marine concerned with a copy of relevant correspondence.
31. Federal Debt Collection Law.
a. Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The FDCPA (15 U.S.C. 1692 et seq) regulates the practices of debt collectors; generally, people hired by creditors to collect their debts. The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from engaging in certain practices, including, but not necessarily limited to, the following:
-Misrepresenting the amount or anything else about the debt
-Contacting the debtor at the place of employment if the debtor knows that the employer prohibits the receipt of such calls there.
-Calling at an inconvenient time, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
-Contacting the debtor after the debtor requests that such communications cease;
-Providing debt information to third parties, such as a military commander or other person in the chain of command, without the written permission of the debtor given directly to the debt collector;
-Failing to accurately identify himself on the phone as a debt collector, or using obscene or profane language, or making repeated calls with the intent to annoy the debtor,
-Threatening arrest, imprisonment, garnishment of wages, or other actions unless lawfully authorized. [In North Carolina, wages can be garnished for family support, but NOT for ordinary consumer debt. See Harris v Hinson 87 N.C. App 148, 360 S.E. 2d 118 (N.C. App. 1987)].]
-Misleading the consumer about the amount of the debt, or implying that the consumer must pay additional charges-such as interest or a debt collector fee- unless such charges are authorized by law.
-Threatening to repossess property, such as a car, unless there is some lawful right to repossession, such as court authorization or a permission granted in a loan contract
-Within five days of the initial communication, the collector must provide written notice indicating the amount of the debt, the name of creditor, and a warning that the debt will be considered valid unless the consumer objects within 30 days. If the consumer does object in writing, the collector must cease collection efforts until he has obtained verification of the debt and provides such verification to the consumer.
A collector who violates the statute can be sued and may be ordered by the court to pay damages of $1,000 and any actual money damages suffered by the consumer. Additionally, the court may order the offending debt collector to pay the plaintiff’s reasonable attorney fees.
b. The Consumer Finance Protection Act. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), created by the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Finance Protection Act (12 USC 5481 et seq) is empowered to take action to prevent unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices, and to sue perpetrators of such actions (12 USC 5481 et seq). Accordingly, the CFPB can, and has, taken enforcement action to address unfair, deceptive, or abusive debt collection practices. Such practices include, but are not necessarily limited to: using access to the debtor’s bank account to take more funds than are owed, providing false information to debtors and their commanders about the consequences of nonpayment, and contacting commanders based on “consent” provisions that are buried in the contract and not conspicuously disclosed.
32. State Debt Collection Statutes. States typically also have their own laws regulating debt collection. The Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act specifically authorizes states to make laws with greater consumer protections than provided by Federal law, and some of the states have done so. For example, North Carolina has a statute that applies to creditors (people trying to collect their own debts) [NC Gen Stat 75-50 thru 56]; as well as to debt collectors (people hired to collect other creditor’s debts) [NC Gen stat 58-70-1 thru 130]. The practices prohibited by state law are very similar to the practices prohibited by Federal law. Note, however, that North Carolina law is broader than the federal FDCP, applying to creditors as well as debt collectors.
The North Carolina Attorney General may sue to enforce North Carolina debt collection statutes. Aggrieved consumers may also sue to enforce the statute, and may recover up to $2,000 from collectors violating it.
33. Marine Corps Debt Collection / Indebtedness Policy.
a. General / Governing Regulation. Marine Corps policy concerning debt collection is set out at volume 10 of Marine Corps Order 5800.16, the Marine Corps Legal Support and Administration Manual (LSAM).
b. Policy. Marines are expected to manage their personal financial affairs satisfactorily and to pay their financial obligations in timely manner. Enforcement of private obligations is a matter for civil authorities; however, indebtedness may have an adverse impact on security clearance (32 CFR Part 147). Furthermore, financial mismanagement that rises to the level of “dishonorable failure to pay just debts,” as defined in the Manual for Courts Martial, may result in administrative or disciplinary action, including non-judicial punishment, court-martial, or administrative separation. In this context, “dishonorable” conduct involves far more than merely making a mistake:
“More than negligence in nonpayment is necessary. The failure to pay must
be characterized by deceit, evasion, false promises or other distinctly culpable
circumstances indicating a deliberate nonpayment or grossly indifferent attitude
toward one’s just obligations. For a debt to form the basis of this offense, the
accused must not have had a defense, or an equivalent offset or counterclaim,
either in fact or according to the accused’s belief, at the time alleged. The offense
should not be charged if there was a genuine dispute between the parties as to
the facts or law relating to the debt which would affect the obligation of the
accused to pay. The offense is not committed if the creditor or creditors involved
are satisfied with the conduct of the debtor with respect to payment. The length
of the period of nonpayment and the denial of indebtedness which the accused
may have made may tend to prove that the accused’s conduct was dishonorable,
but the court-martial may convict only if it finds from all of the evidence that the
conduct was in fact dishonorable. ” emphasis added (MCM 2016, Part IV, Para 71c)
c. Directing Payment / Diverting Pay. Unless otherwise specifically authorized by statute, the Marine Corps has no authority to compel a Marine to pay a debt. Creditors who have obtained a court order may pursue garnishment or involuntary allotment through the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS). Commanders may administratively refer the indebtedness complaint to the Marine.
d. Standards of Fairness. The Order directs that Marine Commanders will NOT assist in the collection of a debt where the creditor:
-Does not first make a good faith effort to collect the debt directly from the Marine;
-Makes obviously false, misleading, or exorbitant claims;
-Violates the applicable federal or State law. Commanders are encouraged to report violations to the Installation Inspector and the Officer in Charge of legal assistance.
e. Communication of Debt Information to Commanders and Other Third Parties. In most cases, the communication of any debt information by a debt collector to the command, without first reducing the debt to a court judgment or obtaining the valid consent of the debtor to engage in such communications, violates Federal law. In some states, including North Carolina, communication of debt information to the command by a debt collector or the creditor (the person to whom the debt is owed) also violates the law… unless the creditor has first obtained a judgment from a court or has obtained valid, written consent from the debtor. For many years, North Carolina law not only required the debtor’s written consent to contact third parties about debt collection, it also required that such consent occur after default. This requirement assured that lenders could not lawfully coerce buyers into giving such consent by making it a condition of extending credit; i.e., putting such “consent” provisions into the loan contract. On August 5, 2015, that law was changed, eliminating the North Carolina state requirement that the written consent occur after default. Failure to make such a consent provision conspicuous is still a violation of the Consumer Finance Protection Act, and likely North Carolina law as well.
f. Processing Complaints of Indebtedness. Debt collection complaints to the command must (i)be in writing, (ii) include information sufficient to identify the Marine and his unit; (iii) include a copy of the contract or other instrument establishing the obligation to include a copy of applicable consumer credit disclosures given to the Marine during the credit transaction; (iv) include evidence of attempts to contact the Marine before asking for command assistance; (v) provide the Marine’s written consent authorizing contact with third parties regarding the matter. Noncomplying complaints, or complaints that otherwise violate state or federal debt collection law, will be returned to the creditor without further action. Complaints alleging indebtedness of a Marine who is no longer a member of the command will be forwarded to the Marine's new command. If the individual has been separated from the Marine Corps, the correspondence will be returned to the sender so informing the party. The creditor may be informed of the Marine's new military address (except in the case of deployed unit), but the permanent (home) mailing address not be disclosed. Commanders receiving a complaint that meets the requirements of the volume 10 of the Marine Corps Legal Services Administration Manual shall (i) review the evidence submitted; (ii) advise the Marine that just financial obligations are expected to be paid in a timely manner, and that failure to pay just debts may lead to administrative or disciplinary action within the Marine Corps and to civil action by the creditor seeking a judgment from a civilian court for the amount of the debt; and (iii) advise the Marine of the opportunity to seek legal assistance and financial counseling with regard to resolving the indebtedness. Commanders should consult the appropriate Staff Judge Advocate when the Marine is suspected of criminal conduct. Questioning the Marine when criminal conduct is suspected requires that the Marine be advised of his or her rights under Article 31(b), UCMJ. After discussing the complaint with the Marine, the Commander may inform the creditor, without commenting on the merits of the claim, and that the complaint was brought to the Marine’s attention.
34. Debt Buyers.
a. Generally. Debt buying firms purchase large bundles of debts deemed uncollectible by the creditor or previous debt collector. Their business model is to buy such debts for pennies on the dollar, turn up the heat of debtors, and squeeze out a profit. In too many cases however, debt buyer collection efforts are abusive and illegal. Alarmingly, in addition to all of the old abuses, such as harassing calls and illegal threats, debt buyers resort to a new abuse, the fraudulent lawsuit. Debt buyers often have very little information about the debt, yet file lawsuits against alleged debtors anyway. In some cases, debt buyers who have almost no information about the debt, including the amount, and no records to substantiate it, nonetheless file debt collection lawsuits, in some cases hundreds of thousands of such lawsuits a year. Debt buyer lawsuits are filed so quickly and inaccurately and with so little prior review that the amount claimed may be wrong and even the wrong person sued. The lawsuit may even be filed after the statute of limitations on collecting the debt has run. Nonetheless, if the defendant fails to respond to the lawsuit or show up for the hearing (which may be in a distant location), the debt buyer is likely to win a court judgement, regardless of the weakness of its case. For example, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau took enforcement action against Portfolio Recovery Services, alleging that the defendant debt buyer violated numerous statutes, in numerous ways, including making misrepresentations to consumers and to courts, and filing some 3,000 debt collection lawsuits a week with very little, if any, review of the underlying facts for accuracy. The matter was resolved in an administrative proceeding on September 9, 2015; the defendant ordered to pay a penalty of $8 million, to provide restitution in the amount of over $19 million, to withdraw numerous ending lawsuits, to take action to repair credit reports of aggrieved consumers, and to follow a comprehensive compliance plan to ensure that the defendant did not repeat its mistakes.
b. “Sewer Service.” Sometimes, the defendant doesn’t even know about the debt buyer lawsuit until it’s all over. The first time the defendant may become aware of the lawsuit is when his wages are garnished, a lien placed on his property, or a bank account seized. Debt buyers sidestep existing requirements to serve the defendant with a copy of the complaint. They send court notices to account addresses at which the defendant consumer no longer resides, and the courts receive thousands of fraudulent affidavits falsely claiming service on the defendant. The process is so rampant it even has a name, “sewer service;” throwing the defendant’s notice in the sewer and then claiming it was delivered.
c. Debt Buyer Statutes. Some states, including North Carolina, have passed legislation to help limit this abuse, requiring debt buyers who initiate lawsuits to provide advance written notice to the debtor, to refrain from filing suits after the statute of limitations has run, and to include certain evidence in the initial court filing [NC Gen Stat 58-70-115(4) thru–(7) ].
d. Protect Yourself from Debt Buyer Lawsuits. Consumers can take some common sense steps to protect themselves:
-Never ignore any court process, even if it is obvious to you that you do not owe the debt. The plaintiff will win if you ignore it. Seek legal help immediately.
-If the debt buyer continues to pursue the case even after you have provided evidence that you are not the debtor, make sure that you have legal counsel show up at the hearing and, if required, you should show up as well. If you contest, it’s likely that the debt buyer will not be able to prove its case even if you owe the debt.
-Demand validation from debt collectors; that is, demand documentation of the existence and the amount of the debt, a right you have under the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
-Have your attorney ask the judge award you the costs of the frivolous litigation, including attorney fees. Consider suing the debt collector for any damages (including statutory or treble damages which may be authorized).
-Provide law enforcement with evidence that the debt buyer filed a false affidavit to the court concerning service of legal process.
-Complain to the FTC Military Sentinel, the North Carolina Attorney General, and more importantly, to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB).
35. Zombie Debt Collectors. In a dismaying development, the debt collection business is becoming increasingly infiltrated by so-called “zombie” debt collectors. These collectors purchase for pennies on the dollar, old, unsubstantiated or poorly substantiated debts that more legitimate organizations discarded as uncollectible. Their business model, like that of debt buyers, is to buy up a huge inventory of such debt and then use the most oppressive practices to collect on at least some of them, thereby turning a profit. The zombie debt collector’s specialty is the attempt to extract money on debts so old that lawsuit to collect them is barred by the statute of limitations. These debt collectors attempt to revive these old, dead debts by getting consumers to sign a promissory note or otherwise acknowledge the debt, thereby resetting the clock and giving it new life. In some cases, zombie debt collectors attempt to squeeze consumers for old “debts” that never existed in the first place. Consumers contacted by such zombie debt collectors should never acknowledge the debt verbally or in writing and should seek legal assistance.