This week from Charleston
For over 40 years, we have protected West Virginia citizens with the Consumer Credit & Protection Act. Now, for the first time since the 1970s, the Legislature is taking away some of those protections. This year’s legislative session will certainly be remembered for many things, and one of them is rolling back the rights of the common everyday citizens under the guise of ‘legal reform.’ Let me give one example just how atrocious some of the so-called reform is for everyday citizens. SB 542 weakens protections from unscrupulous debt collectors and gives debt collectors more rights. That’s right, debt collectors will have greater opportunity to harass people without fear of consequence-even if the debts they are ‘collecting’ are not valid. Debt collectors will be able to call consumers up to 30 times times per week, regardless of whether a debt is valid or not and regardless of whether the collector has the wrong name or phone number for that debt.
Last year, the Legislature responded to the growing problem of “zombie debt” by giving additional protections against debt collectors trying to collect debt that was not legally collectable. However this year, the Legislature handed a gift to the out-of-state debt buyers, which are an increasing problem. Debt buyers purchase debt from others and then try to collect it. Often, debt is purchased, sold and resold many times. The Federal Trade Commission receives more consumer complaints about debt collectors, including debt buyers, than about any other single industry. Many of these complaints appear to have their origins in the quantity and quality of information that collectors have about debts. Indeed, in a 2009 study, the FTC showed concern that debt collectors, including debt buyers, may have insufficient or inaccurate information when they collect on debts. This results in debt collectors seeking to recover from the wrong consumer or recover the wrong amount. Now, it will be easier for them here. These are not abstract cases: in one well-known West Virginia case, a debt collector illegally called a consumer over 900 times, even though the debt collector knew the consumer was represented by a lawyer.
One of the consequences of the bad information is that debt collectors will seek to collect a debt from someone who does not owe it. Oftentimes, it is senior citizens who are asked to pay for debts they do not owe. In the past, West Virginia has tried hard to protect senior citizens and other unwitting victims of debt collector harassment. We should be making it harder for abusive tactics, not easier. I have spoken to many senior citizens who have been harassed for debts that they did not owe. This new law will lead to more abuse. When you hear someone speaking approvingly of legal ‘reform,’ find out who really benefits.