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In Massachusetts, for example, almost 800 complaints about debt collectors flow each year into the office of Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, whose state website declares that he is ''on the front line working for consumers.'' Yet since Reilly took office in 1999, he has initiated legal action against just one collection agency, a Danvers company that paid a $100,000 fine two years ago.
When Reilly's office announced that settlement with Schreiber & Associates, it called it just the start. ''This investigation is part of a larger initiative aimed at protecting consumers from unfair debt collecting practices.''
No legal actions have been announced since then, though a spokesman for Reilly said last night that five investigations of debt collectors are underway.
Similarly passive is the Massachusetts Division of Banks, which also has regulatory authority over collectors. The banking regulators do little more than warehouse required annual filings by 410 debt collection companies - haphazardly, as the Globe discovered when it sought access to the division's records.
Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission, which is charged with enforcing a federal law that regulates the behavior of debt collectors, has done little in the face of an explosion of consumer outrage. From 1998 to 2005, the number of consumer complaints about debt collectors soared tenfold, from 6,678 to 66,627. Yet, in the last six years, the FTC has taken enforcement action against just 10 companies.
This year, an estimated 20 million Americans are three months or more past due on credit card accounts alone, according to data given to the Globe by Experian, one of three national credit reporting agencies. Yet it appears no one in government is keeping track of this alarming trend, not even the Federal Reserve Board, which in June assured Congress that bank credit card delinquency rates are ''not high by historical standards.'' But omitted from that calculation are the tens of billions of dollars that are ''written off'' the books by the credit card giants and sold to debt buyers for collection.
Court administrators who are most likely to be aware of the tidal wave of lawsuits against debtors have not, for the most part, raised concerns about credit caseloads that have turned many courtrooms into de facto subsidiaries of the collection business.
Meanwhile, Congress and many state legislatures have acquiesced to the politically powerful banking industry, which issues much of the credit that goes sour. The laws regulating debt collection predate, by a generation, the current boom for debt collectors. Their ranks have doubled in the last decade.
Frustrated regulators say the result is that many of the roughhouse tactics employed by collectors are legal.
Jesse Caplan, the chief of Reilly's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division, said the vast bulk of complaints to his office about debt collectors are ''not actionable,'' but amount to a misunderstanding of what consumer laws protect against. Caplan said his office informs consumers of their rights, and sometimes mediates disputes between consumers and debt collectors.
That would come as a surprise to Roberta Andresen of Raynham.
She felt she had nowhere to turn but the attorney general after a debt collector sued her in 2003 for a credit card debt she says she had long since settled. Reilly's office, she said, seemed uninterested in her complaint:
''They said they couldn't do anything for me, and told me to post a complaint on the Internet,'' Andresen said.
At the Division of Banks, the authority to audit debt collection firms is infrequently used because the law doesn't require it. ''We're not under any statutory requirement to examine debt collectors,'' David J. Cotney, chief operating officer for the division of banks, said.
And at the Federal Trade Commission, the senior enforcement official acknowledged that the agency has not kept pace with consumer complaints, even though debt collection generates far more complaints than any other activity in the marketplace. ''Clearly, the trend is not good, and we're quite concerned about that,'' said Peggy Twohig, the associate director of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Financial Practices.
Twohig said her agency is planning to increase its enforcement of federal debt collection laws. Asked about the tenfold increase in complaints, and the tiny number of FTC enforcement actions, Twohig replied, ''It's a fair point. The record is what it is.''