Ms. Shirley Atteberry
Dear Ms. Atteberry:
Thank you for your letter concerning the interpretation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("Act").
Question 1. A parent is paying for the schooling of a non-minor child. The parent assumes financial responsibility for the child and in conversations with a debt collector acknowledges such responsibility. You inquire whether a debt collector in this situation can ask the parent whether the parent is financially responsible for the alleged debtor. You also ask whether, once the parent admits financial responsibility, the collector can speak to the parent about the debt.
Section 805 (b) of the Act is designed to protect the privacy of alleged debtors and places strict limitations regarding persons that collectors may communicate with in connection with collection of a debt. This section provides that a collector may not communicate with any person other than the consumer, his attorney, a consumer reporting agency, the creditor, or the attorney of the debt collector or creditor. In the situation described by you, a parent's acknowledgment that the parent assumes overall financial responsibility for a non-minor child does not authorize discussion of a specific debt of the child with the parent, absent the specific consent of the non-minor child. To do so would invade the privacy of the non-minor child and violate the Act.
If the debt collector asks the parent whether the parent is financially responsible for the debtor without revealing the existence of the debt, however, Section 805 (b) would not have been violated. For example, if the parent states that he will not assume financial responsibility for the non-minor child and the debt collector has not at that point revealed the existence of the debt, no violation has occurred. No information regarding the debt has been conveyed.
Question 2. You ask whether there is any other provision of the Act that would permit a debt collector to inquire about financial responsibility of the parents and to discuss the debt with the parents of the non-minor student. The answer is no. For your information, the terms "guardian, executor or administrator" are not defined in the Act. The meaning of such terms is usually a matter of state law and their definitions may vary from state to state.
Question 3. You ask at what age a minor reaches majority. The word "minor" is also not defined in the Act. When a person is deemed to be a minor is a matter of state law.
You indicate that some debt collectors talk to parents of college students (who are 18 and over) without the permission of the student debtor and ask whether the parents are financially responsible for the debtor. If the parent says yes, they then talk to the parent about the debt. You ask whether this is legal.
Section 805 (d) states that the term consumer includes the consumer's spouse, parent (if the consumer is a minor), guardian, executor or administrator. If a student is a minor as defined by state law, communicating with the student's parents is not a violation of 805 (b). If the student is not a minor, however, as defined by state law, communicating with the parents without the consent of the student violates 805 (b) of the Act.
Question 4. Finally, you ask whether a debt collector may contact a neighbor of a debtor and leave a message with that neighbor for the debtor to call if the debt collector has been unable to contact the debtor directly.
The Act permits communicating with neighbors in connection with collection of a debt (absent a consumer's specific consent) only for the purpose of determining the debtor's location as defined in Section 803 (7). If the debt collector already knows the location of the debtor, contacting neighbors of the debtor is inappropriate. Specifically, requesting neighbors to convey messages to the debtor is not permitted by the Act.
I hope this information is helpful. The foregoing views reflect an informal staff interpretation that is not binding on the Commission. However, they do reflect the staff's current enforcement position.
Roger J. Fitzpatrick