Advisory Opinion to Johnson (08-31-98)

August 31, 1998

Mr. Clifford A. Johnson
1917 Surrey Trail
Bellbrook, Ohio 45305

Re: FCRA §§ 605(c) and 623(a)(5) - "Commencement of the delinquency"

Dear Mr. Johnson:

This responds to your request for our views concerning the calculation of the period for which a consumer reporting agency ("CRA") is permitted to report accounts that have been charged off, placed for collection, or subject to similar action, under the amended Fair Credit Reporting Act ("FCRA"). You report that the following series of events occurred with respect to one of your credit accounts:

"My last payment was received by the creditor 12/96. My payments were due monthly and I missed the 1/97 payment and all subsequent payments culminating in a charge off. This creditor does not report to the credit bureau until the account is 90 days delinquent. . . . The creditor contends that the delinquency did not occur until 3/97 because that is when they first reported it."

Section 623(a)(5) requires a creditor that reports a chargeoff to a CRA to notify the agency (within 90 days of reporting the account) of "the month and year of the commencement of the delinquency that immediately preceded" the chargeoff. Section 605(a)(4) provides that the credit bureau may report the chargeoff for seven years. Section 605(c)(1) provides that seven year period begins 180 days from that date. In the scenario your reported, it is our view that the delinquency that led to the charge-off "commenced" in January 1997, the month the first payment was missed. Thus, that is the month and year that the creditor must report to the CRA, and that the CRA must use to calculate the time period dictated by Section 605.

We are not in accord with the contention that the date "when (the creditor) first reported" the chargeoff to the CRA constituted the start of the delinquency. Sections 605(c)(1) and 623(a)(5) were recently added to the FCRA to correct the ineffectiveness of the previous FCRA, under which the date that started the seven-year period was uncertain or under the control of the creditor.(1) The legislative history of these provisions makes it clear that they were designed to correct the often lengthy extension of the period that resulted from delayed creditor action:

Current law generally prohibits consumer reporting agencies from including in a consumer report accounts placed for collection or charged to profit and loss which antedate the report by more than seven years. The Committee is concerned that this seven year limitation is ineffective. In some cases, the ... action occurs months or even years after the commencement of the preceding delinquency. ... Consequently, the consumer report may contain such information even if the delinquency commences more than seven years before the date on which the report is provided to a user.

The Committee bill specifies that the seven-year period with respect to information concerning a delinquent account charged to profit and loss . . . may begin no more than 180 days after the commencement of the delinquency immediately preceding the ... action.

S. Rept. 104-185, 104th Cong., 1st Sess. 39-40 (emphasis added).

Thus, Congress intended to establish a date certain -- the start of the delinquency -- to begin the obsolescence period (now seven years, plus 180 days).(2) The alternate view stated to you (that the date of reporting controls) is at variance with both the plain language of these amendments, and the intent of Congress in enacting them.

In sum, we believe that the phrase "commencement of the delinquency that led to the action" in Sections 605(c)(1) and 623(a)(5) of the FCRA should be construed according to its normal meaning. If a consumer falls behind on an account and never catches up, the delinquency has its "commencement" when the first payment is missed. From that point on, the account is past due and thus delinquent.

The opinions set forth in this informal staff letter are not binding on the Commission.

Sincerely yours,

Clarke W. Brinckerhoff

1. The Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act of 1996 (Title II, Subchapter D, of Public Law 104-280, signed into law on September 30, 1996), made many other changes to the FCRA.

2. The additional 180 day period accords a measure of flexibility to credit bureaus whose furnishers may provide them with the wrong date. However, the expansion of the time period that Section 605 allows chargeoffs and similar actions to be reported accents the desirability of treating the "commencement" of the delinquency as the first missed payment -- not some later date that would further extend the period.