Setting the debt parking brake

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What are the biggest risks of parking? A dinged door? A bruised bumper? For consumers victimized by the pernicious practice of debt parking, the impact on their financial health can be devastating. And if you’re a debt collector who engages in debt parking, an FTC settlement with Midwest Recovery Systems suggests you could face law enforcement action for violations of the FTC Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Just what is debt parking? It’s the practice of placing purported debts on consumers’ credit reports without first attempting to communicate with the consumer about the debt. Some call it “passive debt collection,” but there’s nothing passive about the injury it can inflict. Consumers often don’t learn about it until a mortgage company, prospective employer, or other decision maker pulls their credit report and spots what appears to be an unpaid debt. With a house, car, or job in the balance, many people feel pressured to pay up – even though they may not actually owe the money.

That’s the tactic the FTC says Missouri-based Midwest Recovery Systems and owners Brandon M. Tumber, Kenny W. Conway, and Joseph H. Smith engaged in. According to the lawsuit, since at least 2015, the defendants have reported to credit reporting agencies more than $98 million in bogus or highly questionable debts for payday loans, debts subject to unresolved fraud claims, debts in bankruptcy, debts in the process of being rebilled to consumers’ medical insurance, and even debts people had already paid.

The FTC alleges the defendants continued to collect those debts even in the face of billowing red flags about their validity. In fact, when consumers were able to dispute the purported debts, the defendants have regularly concluded that between 80% and 97% of them were either inaccurate or invalid. That’s not surprising, given that many of those debts originated from certain payday lenders and others whom the FTC has sued for their own illegal practices.

Here’s an example cited in the complaint of how the defendants used debt parking to help line their pockets with millions in gross revenue. When applying for a mortgage, a consumer was told that an outstanding medical debt of $1,500 had lowered his credit score, which threatened to put the kibosh on buying a house. He contacted the hospital where he supposedly owed the debt, only to be told that he owed just an $80 co-pay. In spite of that, the FTC says the defendants refused to remove the debt and threatened the consumer with a lawsuit if he didn’t pony up. His complaint was one of thousands that Midwest Recovery received.

For people who work in the collections field, the pleading in this case merit a careful read. In addition to alleging the defendants made false or unsubstantiated representations in violation of the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the complaint expressly challenges their debt parking tactics as an unfair practice under the FDCPA. The FTC says they also violated the FDCPA by failing to provide validation notices – one of the protections in the statute designed to ensure consumers have the information they need to dispute an invalid debt. Three other counts charge the defendants with violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act by furnishing information to credit reporting agencies they knew or had reasonable cause to believe was inaccurate, by failing to conduct reasonable investigations of disputes, and by failing to report the results of those investigations to consumers.

The settlement suggests some takeaway tips for others in the collections ecosystem.

Consumers’ credit reports are a NO PARKING zone. This is the first FTC case to address debt parking – and thus the first to challenge the practice as unfair under the FDCPA – but the message couldn’t be clearer. Debt collectors that park fake or questionable debts can expect law enforcement scrutiny. What’s more, this kind of parking can result in remedies that extend far beyond a ticket or a boot. In addition to a financial judgment and tough injunctive provisions, the settlement requires the company to turn over all its remaining assets and one defendant to sell his stake in another debt collection company and surrender the proceeds.

Watch for the symptoms of questionable medical debt. The Midwest Recovery settlement is among the first FTC matters to address medical debt. Over 43 million consumers have outstanding medical debts on their credit reports, and medical debt accounts for more than half of the debts reported by third-party collection companies. But medical billing is a frequent source of confusion and uncertainty for consumers, given the complex and often opaque system of insurance coverage and cost sharing. Now more than ever, accuracy issues are a particular concern.

Exercise caution at the intersection of debt collection and credit reports. Reporting debts first and asking questions later – or not at all – can land collectors in a steaming alphabet soup of FDCPA and FCRA violations. Prudent members of the industry scrutinize questionable categories of debt and debts to questionable creditors. They also contact consumers and listen to what they have to say before furnishing information to credit reporting agencies.
 

 

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