How would you feel if your aging mother or father was receiving threatening phone calls from a bill collector for money they don't owe? Maybe the debt is old, has been paid or the collector has the wrong person. Your parents, alarmed and confused by the call, succumb to the horrible pressure and pay to make the threatening calls stop.
All of us should pay our legitimate bills. But no one should be subjected to extortion by debt collectors who threaten lawsuits, jail time and even physical harm — even if it's not their debt.
Nearly 15 percent of Americans today face collection calls, including the most vulnerable population of senior citizens on fixed incomes. That's twice the number of Americans pursued by collectors 12 years ago, according to the Federal Reserve. Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission's recent complaint data analysis shows that the top complaint from Oklahoma consumers was debt collection.
The increase is largely due to a new industry of debt buyers who purchase huge portfolios of debt for pennies on the dollar and seek to collect it using automated dialing systems and lawsuits. In the process, they make mistakes that can entrap even those who've always paid their bills in full and on time. Credit card companies may sell off disputed bills, including bills for a returned item, or accounts that resulted from identity theft. Debt buyer companies usually don't know if a debt is legitimate or not.
AARP Oklahoma stands firmly behind Senate Bill 1430 that has passed the Senate and is making its way through the House of Representatives. The measure will go a long way toward cleaning up debt collection practices and providing additional protection for Oklahoma consumers of all ages.
Endorsed by large and small debt buyer companies, SB 1430 is designed to create a level playing field that encourages competition among smaller, more ethical state firms and larger out-of-state debt buyers who often cut corners.
SB 1430 requires collectors to verify they have the correct consumer before initiating a collection action or litigation. It also prohibits the use of threatening or harassing language and techniques (such as numerous calls within a 24-hour period), and allow consumers to record collection calls — which currently is illegal in Oklahoma. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the bill grants the attorney general power to prosecute violators.
Many seniors on fixed incomes are struggling to make ends meet. As a state, we cannot tolerate criminals who pose as legitimate businesses as they prey on vulnerable aging Oklahomans.
Lyons is president of AARP Oklahoma.