Who Can Use, and Who Must Follow, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act
The Fair Debt Collections Practices Act only applies to consumer debts and, by and large, the actions of debt collectors (or original creditors pretending to be debt collectors). This is broken down into the questions of the type of debt for which collection is sought and the type of entity seeking the debt. In this article we will first discuss what the FDCPA covers, and then what that means to you.
Consumer Debts only
The FDCPA applies to “consumer debts,” or debts incurred primarily for personal, family, or household purposes. 15 U.S.C. Sections 1692a(3) and (5), Creighton v. Emporia Credit Service, Inc., 981 F.Supp. 411 (E.D.Va. 1997). When the debt is rung up on a corporate or business credit card, the courts will look into the nature of the debt – and not simply the name on the card. As I have pointed out elsewhere, however, making this argument can be dangerous to the “corporate shield” since it suggests a merging of assets which is sometimes used to defeat the corporate shield and allow a creditor to pursue an owner of the corporation.
Natural Persons Only
The act also only protects “natural” persons, which means it applies only to actual people and not corporations or separate associations. Again, since debt collectors never actually speak to corporations or businesses, but only to human individuals, this simply means that if a debt collector is calling on a debt rung up for business purposes, or calling a business regarding its debt (and harassing whoever picks up the phone, for example), the FDCPA does not apply.
Because the FDCPA applies to only consumer debt, it applies only to “transactions” engaged in primarily for personal, family, or household debt. In other words, it does not apply to debts generated by child support obligations, tort claims (lawsuits against you for harming another person), or personal taxes, for example. Mabe v. G.C. Services Limited Partnership, 32 F.3d 86 (4th Cir. 1994); Zimmerman v. HBO Affiliate Group, 834 F. 2d 1163 (3rd Cir. 1987); Hawthorne v. Mac Adjustment, Inc., 140 F.3d 1367 (11th Cir. 1998).
On the other hand, the term “transaction” can be fairly broad, and would include things like condominium fees or other fees or debts incurred as part of a transaction that might, in fact, have occurred years before the debt in question arose. Because the FDCPA applies to debts arising out of transactions, it has applied to condo fees for a house the consumer once lived in but later (at the time of the FDCPA violation) was renting out to others for the purpose of generating income. This would suggest the reverse might also be true – a condo originally purchased for business purposes but later converted to personal use might not be covered by the FDCPA, but I have not seen a case with that holding.
The Act does apply to things you might consider “non-credit” obligations, such as bad check debts, condominium assessment fees, residential rental payments, municipal water and sewer service, and other non-credit consumer obligations – Bass v. Stolper, Koritzinsky,Brewster & Neider, S.C., 111 F.3d 1322 (7th Cir. 1997); FTC v. Check Investors, 502 F.3d 159 (3d Cir. 2007).
Debt Collectors Only
In general, the FDCPA applies only to “debt collectors.” What that means used to be a lot clearer than it is now.
The Supreme Court confused the question of who was a debt collector in some decisions in 2018. Primarily, it determined that when a company buys a debt – regardless of its status at the time of purchase – it is a “creditor” under the part of the law debt defendants had been using to sue junk debt buyers.
Instead, a person buying a debt might be a debt collector if its “principle business” is the collection of debts. It is not clear HOW MUCH of a company’s business must be collection of debts for that to be its “principle business.” I would guess a sizable majority – perhaps 90% or more – but the term has rarely been litigated, and has never been quantified to my knowledge. It would seem clear that a bank with a sizable business providing credit cards would not be a debt collector if it happened to buy someone else’s debts and bring suit on them. Likewise, law firms buying debt and suing on them would probably not be debt collectors if they do anything else – a truly unfortunate result, in my opinion.
But classic debt collectors (i.e., those working for someone else) would still be debt collectors, and so, probably, are the largest junk debt buyers.
What the FDCPA does not cover is actions by an “original creditor” (i.e., the company or person who claims you borrowed from it) unless it is pretending to be another entity. Sometimes original creditors seek to exert additional pressure on delinquent bill payers by pretending to be a debt collector, and when they do this they are not only covered by the FDCPA but also often in violation of it, since the Act prohibits deception and unfair collection methods. The Act will also not cover the actions of loan “servicers,” which are financial companies that buy debt not in default and manage it as if they had extended credit in the first place.
What It Means to Be Covered by the FDCPA or Not
As I am sure you know, the FDCPA requires and prohibits certain actions, giving you defenses and the right to counterclaim or file suit against a debt collector. If the FDCPA does not apply, you simply cannot claim any rights under it – cannot require verification, bring claims for deception or abusive conduct, or seek to enforce any other rights under the FDCPA against non-debt collectors or against debt collectors for their actions in pursuit of non-covered debt.
Making such a claim could damage your ability to defend against these debts, so you should carefully consider whether the Act applies before attempting to assert rights under it.
If your debt or bill collector is not covered under the FDCPA, that does not necessarily mean that you have no rights worth asserting. It just means that you must look somewhere else for them. Many states have their own debt collection laws, and these may apply to situations the FDCPA does not. Also, more generally, most states have laws regarding how “outrageous” a person – including a debt collector – is allowed to be.
One of the great things about the FDCPA is that it gives some specific rules – debt collectors cannot call before 8 in the morning, for example, whereas a few calls by an original creditor early in the morning will probably not be illegal. As the behavior becomes more and more extreme, however, the more likely it is to be “outrageous” enough to give you the right to sue. Threats of physical harm or police activity probably go over this line, for example; cussing you out a time or two? – maybe not. It is simply not clear what non-debt collectors are allowed to do in many instances. Courts have been pretty tolerant of some surprisingly bad or extreme actions by original creditors.