North Jersey: Debt Collection Harassment


Here is the text of the story:

N.J. Debt-Collection Act Closer to Reality

By Megan DeMarco
June 29, 2009

The first call came in late April.

Megan Duffy, a 21-year-old college student, picked up the phone at her parents’ home in Belmar, N.J., and heard the voice of a debt collector.

With just one credit card and a few hospital bills to pay off, she wasn’t fazed.

“I explained my situation to him,” she said. “I’m going to school so I can get a good job so I can pay off this debt.”

But “he just did not get it through his head,” she said. She has received daily calls since that first one, she said, describing them as nasty and intimidating.

For Duffy and other New Jersey residents who feel besieged by debt collectors, relief could be on the way. An Assembly committee on June 4 approved the New Jersey Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which would expand a 1977 federal law and give victims of harassment access to help at the state level.

Because there is no state law, most complaints are forwarded to the Federal Trade Commission, where they might not get the attention they deserve, according to Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), a cosponsor of the bill.

“New Jersey’s long overdue to come up with a state statute,” Burzichelli said. “It allows our Division of Consumer Affairs a straight line of action.”

The bill would more strictly regulate the communication debt collectors can have with debtors, and impose harsher penalties on violators.

Supporters of the bill say abusive debt-collection practices – repeated phone calls, misrepresentations, calls at work, calls to employers and family members – are out of hand and need to be dealt with at the state level. Some critics, however, feel the bill would amount to overregulation.

The measure would restrict when (between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.) and where (not at the debtor’s place of employment) a collector could contact a debtor, and would prohibit a collector from talking to a family member before obtaining a judgment against the debtor.

Under the proposed law, debt collectors could not threaten criminal proceedings or other legal action unless they intend to follow through.

It would also prohibit collectors from using misleading representations or deception, using unfair or unconscionable means, and engaging in conduct that is harassing, oppressing, intimidating, or abusive.

Such provisions might have been helpful to Duffy, a Brookdale Community College student.

“He was trying to intimidate me to the fullest in that phone call,” she said of her first experience with the collector. “It’s obvious that I’ve never talked to a debt collector. . . . He was like, ‘Let me scare this girl.’ “

The collector, from Central Credit Services Inc., of Jacksonville, Fla., told her she was going to have a “hard time” if she didn’t pay off her debt, in full, immediately, she said. The caller, she said, badgered her to have a friend or family member pay her debt.

She said she still wasn’t sure whether she was being called about the hospital bills or the credit-card debt, which is about $900.

Calls to the Florida firm for comment were not returned.

The bill imposes a maximum penalty of $12,000 for the first offense and a maximum of $20,000 for the second, a provision consumer-law experts say would make the proposed legislation one of the strictest state laws in the nation.

Burzichelli hopes to have the bill through the Assembly before the summer break, through the Senate in the fall, and signed into law by the end of the year.

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