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Debt Collectors Can Legally Leave Voice Messages

May 15, 2012

Collection agencies are almost always the bad guys in the news, but, a recent case from earlier this month, Zortman v. J.C. Christensen & Associates Inc., shows that sometimes collection agencies are entitled to certain behaviors, lest they be bound by a Catch 22.

In this case, analyzed by JDSUPRA, the Plaintiff, Christina Zortman filed litigation against the named defendant, a collection agency. Zortman leant her children her cell phone, and they received a subsequent message intended for their mother from the collection agency.

Zortman’s stance was that the agency violated the Fair Debt Collecting Practices Act (FDCPA) by “communicating” her debt to a third-party. The judge ruled in favor of the collection agency.

“Communication” is defined by the FDCPA as the “conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.” The message left for Zortman never mentioned her name or the purpose of the phone call. Rather the message only revealed the number for her to contact.

Since this information is the same that would be revealed through Called ID or a missed call log, ruling the defendant’s actions a FDCPA violation would prohibit collection agencies from using the phone altogether.

This is where things get hairy. The FCDPA instructs Collection Agencies to state “that the debt collector is attempting to collect a debt and that any information obtained will be used for that purpose.”

It can be difficult, though, to protect the privacy of the debtor in situations where third parties answer the phone. How would this agency know that Zortman’s children would be using her personal cell phone? There can’t be an “inferred” third-party; therefore, agencies are permitted to leave vague messages.

It’s doubtful that the collector/debtor relationship has ever been analyzed to the extent that it has prior to The Recession. Perhaps the debtor empowerment campaigns of various organizations have left debtors feeling overly confident because Zortman and her legal team were very presumptuous with this litigation.

Recent attention to the egregious actions of collection agencies have sometimes resulted in severe amounts of punitive damages. The Fair Trade Commission has worked overtime in amending existing laws and raising awareness of debtor rights. But this case shows that unless some jurisdictions rule in favor of the agencies, third-party collectors might be confined to sitting around and crossing their fingers that people will pay up.

Edited by Braden Becker

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