Text messages are quickly becoming the new frontier of debt collection communication. The Federal Trade Commission recently announced that it had settled a case against two debt-collection firms alleging that they improperly sent text messages to communicate with possible debtors. Levying a $1 million fine against two related California-based firms: National Attorney Collection Services Inc., and National Attorney Services LLC, the FTC alleged both companies sent about 1.8 million text messages over an 18-month period. These messages were sent not just to debtors, but also to purported debtors’ relatives, friends and co-workers, and even to people with no connection to the debtors. If your smart phone is not properly set up, your text messages can be shared with other members of your family plan. Imagine your child receiving a past due or collection notice from one of your creditors. What if a collection agency mistakenly identified you as a debtor because you share the same name as someone else? It is possible that your friends and associates could receive texts identifying you as a person who was not making good on your debts.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act regulates debt-collection action to protect consumer privacy. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires collectors to say what the call or message is about, but also penalizes collectors for revealing the debt to third parties such as roommates or family members of the debtor. So if someone other than the debtor sees the text, the collector is liable. In addition to imposing a $1 million civil penalty, the settlement requires collection firms to clearly and prominently disclose that the consumer may receive collection text messages on a mobile phone number provided to the original creditor or the defendants in connection with the debt. Furthermore, the settlement requires proof the consumer has taken an additional affirmative step, such as providing a signature that indicates the consumer has agreed to receive such messages.
The Federal Communications Commission has recently amended the Telephone Consumer Protection Act to require prior express written consent for all autodialed or pre-recorded calls and texts, including those to cell phones. Under the new amendments, consumer consent must be unambiguous, meaning that the consumer must receive a “clear and conspicuous disclosure” that she will receive future calls that deliver autodialed or pre-recorded marketing messages on behalf of a specific company; that her consent is not a condition of purchase; and that she must designate a phone number at which to be reached.
While legislation is been revised to address many concerns over this new debt collection tactic, many issues such as text messaging charges being passed along to the consumer, have not been addressed. The message here is clear; do not give your consent to text messaging. The only way to avoid these potentially embarrassing or annoying messages is to refuse to grant consent. Be careful when you discuss your account with a customer service representative. At the beginning of these conversations they often give legal disclosures or request consent to certain collection procedures while they “verify” your personal information. Listen closely to what the representative asks of you. You have the choice to consent or to withhold consent. If you are in doubt, send a letter to your creditor revoking any and all consents to send account information or otherwise contact you via text messaging.