Americans wrestled with debt-collection lawsuits long before the coronavirus hit, a new report finds. Now, a surge of the suits may swamp consumers who lost their jobs in the pandemic and can’t afford to pay their bills.
The report, published Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit research group, said debt lawsuits were already the most common type of civil court case in many states.
“The courthouse has become a debt-collection tool,” said Erika Rickard, director of Pew’s civil legal modernization project. In the face of a potential “wave” of lawsuits, she said, courts should take steps to make sure consumers have a fair chance to be heard in the cases.
Many companies, like credit-card issuers, car lenders and even medical providers, turn accounts over to professional debt collectors after someone fails to pay a bill. More than a quarter of Americans with a credit report have at least one debt in collection by a third-party collector, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said last year. The data showed that many people were already on the edge financially, even before the economy virtually shut down.
If a collection firm fails to collect or work out a payment plan with a borrower, it can file a lawsuit. Over the two decades ending in 2013, the number of debt-collection suits nationally more than doubled to about 4 million — a quarter of civil cases. The trend appears to have continued, based on a review of available data from a dozen states, the Pew report said. The suits typically involve unpaid medical, credit card or automobile bills, often for amounts under $5,000.
Many of the suits end in automatic victories for collectors, the report found. That’s probably because consumers sued for debts rarely have lawyers. And for various reasons, debtors often fail to show up for hearings. People may not be able to afford a lawyer, may be unable to take time off work or may not have been properly notified, said Lisa Stifler, state policy director at the Center for Responsible Lending.
Collectors may have scant documentation, but if the debtor doesn’t appear, the case is decided with no scrutiny of the facts, said Daniel Lindsey, director of the consumer practice group with Legal Aid Chicago.
Those automatic, or default, judgments can be costly, adding interest and court fees to the amount owed. And collectors often win the power to garnish paychecks or seize money in bank accounts, meaning they can deduct the funds automatically.
The problem isn’t new. A decade ago, the Federal Trade Commission declared the system for resolving consumer debts was “broken.”
But now, tens of millions of people have been thrown out of work because of the coronavirus, and the economy has sputtered. In a survey taken in early March, before the height of the pandemic, more than a quarter of Americans said they did not pay all of their bills on time, which was the highest proportion since 2012, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
During the pandemic, banks and other lenders have been giving consumers more time to pay bills and waiving late fees and interest. Some states have temporarily paused debt-collection suits and garnishment actions.
But those moves are mostly temporary, and as states move to reopen their economies, consumer advocates said, they worry that collection activities will surge. “These emergency measures tend to have deadlines associated with them,” said April Kuehnhoff, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center.
The Pew report urged courts to take steps to accurately track case results and to make sure debtors have the opportunity to make their arguments. Courts, for example, should confirm that debtors received notification of the lawsuit and that the plaintiff owns the right to collect the debt, the report recommended. And courts could move more functions online so people can more easily participate in their own defense.
“This is a really critical moment,” Rickard said.
Some states have already adopted changes, and some, like Texas, are collecting robust case data, Pew said. But it’s unclear if others will adopt the changes right away, given the strain on budgets and services from the pandemic.
“In the current environment, it seems like a heavy lift,” Stifler said.
Here are some questions and answers about debt collection:
What rights do I have if a debt is sent to collection?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act bars collectors from harassing debtors or using abusive or deceptive tactics to collect debts. Consumers have the right to verify that they owe the money and to dispute the debt, if they think they don’t owe it.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year proposed updates to the law, including limiting the number of times collectors can try to reach a debtor by phone and allowing collectors to contact debtors by email or text messages. The proposal would also require that the emails or messages include an opt-out process for consumers who want to stop the communications. The changes haven’t been finalized, though.
Some states offer extra protections to their residents, and a few have adopted stronger safeguards during the pandemic. Massachusetts, for example, banned debt-collection activities, including phone calls and new debt-collection lawsuits, during the crisis. The move is being challenged by a collection industry group, and a court issued a temporary restraining order Wednesday blocking the emergency protections.
Can debt collectors garnish my stimulus payments?
Federal virus relief programs exempt stimulus payments from being taken to cover certain federal or state debts. But they don’t protect the funds from private debt collectors. So it is possible that if you have a court judgment against you for a debt, money can be taken from your bank account or your wages, Kuehnhoff said.
Some states have explicitly protected stimulus payments and have taken steps to halt the seizure of consumer funds more broadly during the pandemic. “It really varies across the country,” she said.
If your payment is seized and you want to fight it, you may have to appear in court, which may be challenging because many courts are handling only emergency matters because of the virus. “It can be difficult even if you are entitled to an exemption,” Kuehnhoff said.
Groups representing consumers, banks and debt collectors have urged the federal government to mark all stimulus payment deposits as exempt from garnishment. But that hasn’t happened.
What should I do if a debt collector contacts me?
First, confirm the call is from a legitimate company — collection fraud is rife. Ask the caller for the company’s name and address, and ask if it is a licensed collector in your state. (Not all states license collectors, but many do.) Then, hang up so you can confirm the information yourself by searching online or by contacting your state’s licensing agency. Or search the name online at the National Multistate Licensing System.
The consumer law center has free online resources for managing debts during the pandemic. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a question checklist and templates for disputing debts.
Normally, consumer advocates may suggest trying to work out a payment plan with creditors. But because of the pandemic, people may need to set financial priorities. If you already have a debt payment plan and you have lost your job, say so — and ask if the collection firm has “hardship” programs that could temporarily suspend payments.
If you can’t handle the situation on your own, you may want to seek legal help. Places to start for low-cost services: the Legal Services Corp. and the National Association of Consumer Advocates.