What is a collection company?
There are a few possibilities.
Some creditors will actually use a separate company name, address, and phone number for their internal collection departments, in order to give the impression of an “outside” agency, on the theory that debtors will take it more seriously. This strategy is generally only used when the debt is recent (under six months delinquent.)
However, the most successful collection activity is performed by an outside third-party collection company. Separate from the original creditors or 1st party they are able to work debts on behalf of all lenders. They, from time to time also buy bad account which have been designated as charge-offs by the original creditor.
This information focuses on 3rd party collection companies.
How do they make money?
3rd party debt collection companies often work on 100% commission, where they only get paid when they recover funds. Collectors are usually paid a small hourly wage plus commissions and/or bonus based on results.
Many collection companies purchase substantial debt portfolios of charged-off accounts for a fraction of the total face amount (total amount outstanding) After a portfolio is sold off, the debtors now owe the entire amount to the purchasing company. The probability of collecting money decreases substantially over time, an agency might only pay 1% – 5% of face value. The agencies’ profits come from the difference between the purchase price and the amounts that are hopefully collected.
How does the collection company work?
The main tools of a collection company are dunning notices and phone calls.
What are the letters like?
The dunning letters are usually computer-generated. They are often in a standardized series which starts with a simple, “reminder” tone, and may buildup to a final demand. The letters are pre-written and sent to many debtors; they are not personal.
The first letter must state that the recipient has the right to dispute the validity of the debt (in writing), and the agency must send some confirmation after verifying it with the original creditor. Collection letters must also contain the statement that they come from a debt collector, and that any information gathered will be used for the purpose of collecting the debt. Collectors are legally prohibited from printing anything on the outside of the envelope which indicates or suggests the nature of the communication. Even the return address must be discreet, so many agencies will just use their company’s initials, or some other nondescript name.
Depending on how the debtor reacts to the demand will affect what additional notices (if any) the company will select from its library. Voluntary resolution (e.g. making payment arrangements and/or partial payments) may result in letters with a gentler tone. Deceptive or belligerent reactions from the debtor may result in a more threatening tone.
Collectors attempt to create a sense of urgency, to try and collect the debt within the shortest amount of time. This hopefully will encourage the debtor to prioritize that particular obligation. Deadlines may be set, such as, Pay this amount within 10 days. There may also be threats, such as, …Or we will proceed with further collection attempts. But most of the time, if a debtor fails to meet the deadline, all that will happen is that yet another dunning letter will arrive, making the same basic demand. The & further collection action usually just means more dunning letters.
Collection letters will always persuade the debtor to call the collection company directly on the telephone. If the debtor doesn’t call within 30 days, then a collector will often call the debtor.
What are the telephone calls like?
Individual phone collectors may be assigned a portfolio of accounts, and spend the bulk of the workday, every day, working them. The collectors devotion is fueled by frequent performance evaluations and personal commission payments. The size of a collector’s own paycheck is dependent upon how much money s/he extracts from debtors. Between that factor, and the relentless confrontations, this is a very high-stress job, with high employee turnover.
If a debt collector calls and reaches someone other than the debtor (e.g. a boy/girl friend), s/he is legally prohibited from disclosing that “this is an attempt to collect a debt.” Each state has there own laws but this may or may not include the debtor’s spouse. If the collector reaches an answering machine or voice mail, s/he will often leave an approved message, but is prohibited from giving details for the call, since someone besides the debtor may hear it. The basic message goes something like, “I am calling for ABC Company. It is very important that you call me back. My name is JR Rooney, and my number is 1-631-776-8109.” S/he will typically sound rather apathetic and sonorous. Collection companies may be required to provide a phone number which is free for the debtor to return the call. They also may attach their toll free numbers to caller ID equipment which will instantly identifies and logs the phone number the debtor is calling from, in order to call the debtor at that number in the future.
When speaking with a debtor, many collectors (especially those without much experience) will use a script, which contains a pre-written introduction, request for payment, and has various branches to follow, depending on how the debtor responds. If a particular debtor is taking up too much time, without making arrangements to pay, the collector will be inclined to move on to other accounts.
Any information that the debtor gives about his/her financial situation (e.g. income or job status, etc.) will be noted on the account record and used to estimate the chances of a recovery, the appropriateness of legal action, and so forth.
But what can the collection company actually do?
If they are working the debt on commission, they can send some more form letters and make some more scripted phone calls.
They can also mark the item as negative with the credit bureaus. If they are working on contingency, they can recommend filing suit, or if they own the account, they can file suit. However, the actual chances or intentions of this are often significantly less than they try to suggest to the debtor.
Collection companies can not legally seize a debtor’s assets, bank accounts, or garnish wages unless there has already been a successful lawsuit with a judgment awarded to them.
Collection companies can not legally make any kind of public announcements or disclosures concerning the debt, except to the credit bureaus.
Collection companies can not legally get a debtor fired from his/her job.
Collection companies can not legally engage in any type of physical violence or threats thereof.
Why would a debtor pay?
Often, the reasons include fear, guilt, intimidation, and a lack of understanding of the legal situation. Plus it is the right thing to do.
The debtor may feel guilty and ashamed of being a “deadbeat,” and may perceive a judgment of his/her value as a person.
The debtor may have greatly exaggerated ideas about what collectors are (legally) capable of doing, and may have outdated stereotypes in mind.
The debtor may be overwhelmed by the aggressive and relentless demands, from companies that may seem so powerful. S/he may take it personally, and assume that great individual attention is being given to this particular collection file.
Consumers being contacted by collection companies are typically in serious financial difficulty, and under emotional stress about the general situation, so they may be confused and vulnerable.
Many debtors aren’t aware of their legal rights, and feel powerless.
There are two main things that a collection company can actually do that a debtor should be concerned about. These involve damage to credit reports, and the smaller possibility of a lawsuit.
What about credit reports?
3rd party collection companies have the resources to report a debt to 1 or more of the credit bureaus, as a “Collection Account”. Paying this debt off will not result in the item being removed from the consumer’s credit reports – it will simply be marked “Paid in full.” Collection companies can report bad accounts that they have purchased as well as debts that are placed on a contingent bases.
Also, a collection company may request a debtor’s credit report, in order to get an idea of his/her general financial situation, and to get an updated address and phone number.
How long do collection accounts last?
Collection accounts are subject to the normal 7 year time limit for appearing on a credit report. As specified in Section 605 of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, this time limit is based on the date of the original delinquency.
What is the probability that the collection company will file suit?
If the debt was placed on contingency, the 3rd party collection company cannot file a lawsuit. If the balance is large enough and the debtor is being resistant and if there are indications that the debtor has vulnerable assets, the agency may send the account back to the creditor with a recommendation to file suit. Every creditor has its own criteria for the final decision; for example, the amount must be substantial (often $1500 or more, at the very least.)
Collection companies want to avoid sending too many accounts back, since it suggests that they aren’t very good at collecting. Letters and telephone calls are much less expensive than going to court.
If a collection company has purchased the debt, then they have the ability to file suit, but in most cases, the debt is likely to be rather old, and the agency doesn’t have much money invested into it.
Collectors tend to focus on fear and intimidation, since those things can work much more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently than legal action.
Suit is certainly brought against many debtors, but not as often as debtors think. There is a big difference between, “Pay up or we will continue with collection action,” compared to an actual Summons And Complaint.
If the debt is substantial and recent, and the debtor appears to be a good target (e.g. reasonable assets or income), a lawsuit is a real possibility. If you are served with legal documents specifying a particular court, hearing date, etc., you should see a qualified attorney immediately. That area is beyond the scope of this FAQ.
Who regulates collection companies?
The most important law is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which places many restrictions on collection activities. The FDCPA only covers third-party collection companies, not original creditors.
Every state has applicable laws regarding such things as telephone harassment.
Who enforces the FDCPA?
The Federal Trade Commission oversees the collections industry, and has the authority to impose fines or other penalties for violations. However, the FTC does not get involved with individual consumers’ cases. They accept a large number of complaints, and look for patterns of violations which could then lead to action against a particular collection company.
What if a collection company has purchased the debt?
The agency then becomes the creditor for most purposes. The debtor will not be able to make any negotiations with the original creditor. The agency might be technically able to file a lawsuit against the debtor, (although this is not likely.)
However, the Federal Trade Commission has issued a Staff Opinion Letter which indicates that, even if a collection company has purchased a debt, it is still covered under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act as a “third-party debt collector.”
What about the relevant time limits?
The debt does not become some kind of “new” debt just because it was sold. For example, the 7 year credit reporting time limit is still based on the original delinquency date with the original creditor. The statute of limitations for filing lawsuits is also based on that same date. These limits can not be legitimately “reset” by a collection company that has bought the debt.
However, the statute of limitations may possibly be reset if the debtor makes a specific promise to pay, or a partial payment.
Can the collection company do anything after the time limit expires?
Yes. The statute of limitations only covers the filing of lawsuits, and the credit reporting time limit only covers bureau listings. There is no time limit on letters and phone calls.
A collection company that has purchased a bundle of “out-of-statute” debts (where the SOL has already expired, or “run”) is hoping that, either the debtors will feel guilty, or that they won’t be aware of that “out-of-statute” status. But if a particular debtor makes it clear that s/he understands the legal situation, then the collectors are likely to give up and move on to easier targets.
Can collectors call the debtor’s place of employment?
Yes, but there are limitations. For example, they can not legally tell your employer about the debt, or try to have you fired.
Is there any way to make them stop calling?
Yes. According to section 805 of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act:
“(c) CEASING COMMUNICATION. If a consumer notifies a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay a debt or that the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer, the debt collector shall not communicate further with the consumer with respect to such debt, except —
(1) to advise the consumer that the debt collector’s further efforts are being terminated;
(2) to notify the consumer that the debt collector or creditor may invoke specified remedies which are ordinarily invoked by such debt collector or creditor; or
(3) where applicable, to notify the consumer that the debt collector or creditor intends to invoke a specified remedy.
If such notice from the consumer is made by mail, notification shall be complete upon receipt.”
So the consumer can just send a third-party collection company a written notice (preferably citing the FDCPA), ordering them to stop the collection letters and calls, and the agency is legally obligated to comply. The only permissible contact thereafter is to notify the debtor of specific “remedies,” like legal action, but usually the collectors won’t even bother.
If the creditor hasn’t yet made a decision on whether or not to file a lawsuit, then that decision may be made at this point, rather than being delayed.
After a “cease and desist” notice from the consumer, the debt may then be returned to the original creditor, passed on to another third-party agency, or simply filed away, depending on the circumstances. The agency may still report the account to the credit bureaus.
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