A Practical Guide to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) was adopted to “eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors….” 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). Debt collectors include lawyers and law firms regularly engaged in the collection of debts through litigation constitute debt collectors for purposes of the law. Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291, 299, 115 S.Ct. 1489, 1493, 131 L.Ed.2d 395 (1995).

A debt collector’s behavior is measured according to a “least sophisticated debtor” standard, which “ensure[s] that the FDCPA protects all consumers, the gullible as well as the shrewd… the ignorant, the unthinking, and the credulous.’” McCollough v. Johnson, Rodenburg & Lauinger, LLC, 637 F.3d 939, 952 (quoting Clark v. Capital Credit & Collection Serv., Inc., 460 F.3d 1162, 1171 (9th Cir. 2006)). The FDCPA is a strict liability statute that “makes debt collectors liable for violations that are not knowing or intentional.” Reichert v. National Credit Systems, Inc., 531 F.3d 1002, 1005 (9th Cir. 2008).

Absent evidence of a bona fide error, courts have held that a debt collector violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act as a matter of law where it misstates the balance owed, misrepresents the legal status of a debt, pursues a non-existent debt, or collects or garnishes more than the amount owed. 

Although a debt collector can violate the FDCPA in numerous ways, most violations fall into one of the following two categories. We will address additional FDCPA violations in subsequent blog posts.

False and Misleading Misrepresentations.

A debt collector may not use any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt. This includes, but is not limited to false representations as to:

(A) the character, amount, or legal status of any debt; or

(B) any services rendered or compensation which may be lawfully received by any debt collector for the collection of a debt.

(3) The false representation or implication that any individual is an attorney or that any communication is from an attorney.

It also prohibits debt collectors from representing or implying: that nonpayment of a debt will result in arrest or imprisonment or the seizure, garnishment, attachment, or sale of any property or wages of any person (unless such action is lawful and the debt collector or creditor intends to take such action); threats to take actions that cannot legally be taken or that are not intended rot be taken; false representations or implications that the consumer committed any crime or other conduct in order to disgrace the consumer; and falsifying documents to make it appear they are authorized, issued, or approved by courts, officials, or U.S. or state agencies.

This section of the FDCPA generally prohibits using false representations or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect any debt or to obtain information concerning a consumer. 

Unfair or Unconscionable Means.

A debt collector may not use unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt. This includes:

  1. Collecting amounts (including any interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation) that are not expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law.
  2. Accepting a check or other payment instrument postdated by more than five days (unless such person is notified in writing of the debt collector's intent to deposit such check or instrument not more than ten nor less than three business days prior to such deposit).
  3. Soliciting postdated checks or other postdated payment instruments for the purpose of threatening or instituting criminal prosecution.
  4. Depositing or threatening to deposit any postdated check or other postdated payment instrument prior to the date on such check or instrument.
  5. Taking or threatening to take any nonjudicial action to effect dispossession or disablement of property if (a) there is no present right to possession of the property claimed as collateral through an enforceable security interest; (b) there is n present intention to take possession of the property; or (c) the property is exempt by law from such dispossession or disablement. 
  6. Communicating with a consumer regarding a debt by post card.

Violations of the FDCPA carry penalties, including statutory and actual damages as well as attorneys' fees and court costs.