There’s probably nothing more annoying than a pre-recorded call (robocall) asking you to buy something.
Unless it’s a robocall demanding you pay off a debt you might owe. Congress has just made it possible for some debt collectors to add robocalls to mobile phones to their toolkits. And a number of people and groups are unhappy.
Until passage of the latest federal budget, collectors placing robocalls or sending texts needed advance consent of those receiving such calls. That provision was part of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.
Section 301 of the new budget bill repealed the advanced consent requirement for collectors of debt that’s owed to or guaranteed by the federal government. The change allows robocalls not only to student loan and mortgage borrowers, farmers, veterans and others with federally backed loans but also to their relatives, references and even unrelated people who get a reassigned cell phone number from such borrowers.
“They sneaked Section 301 in there. Nobody even knows how it got in [the budget bill],” said Tim Marvin of Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of the organization that publishes Consumer Reports.
Consumers Union had launched a campaign in February to pressure phone companies to help curb robocall excesses. When we checked its website, endrobocalls.org, more than 568,000 people had signed an online petition of support.
The outrage of consumers was matched by that of 10 U.S. senators who are co-sponsoring a bill to overturn Section 301. The bill is called the HANGUP (Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone calls) Act. Seventeen groups supporting the bill drafted a sample letter consumers can mail to their senators, in an effort to give the bill traction.
Critics say allowing robocalls to mobile phones will flood consumers with nuisance calls, and they contend the calls will generate relatively little in repaid debt. Such calls also offer consumers little recourse if they’re targeted unfairly.
Banks often sell bad loans to collection companies for pennies on the dollar — hard-to-collect loans might be sold several times.
The proper paperwork is supposed to accompany such sales, but that doesn’t always happen. As a result, people with similar names or Social Security numbers may receive dunning robocalls over debts they don’t owe, and it may not be easy to find a live person to straighten things out.
Consumers Union’s Tim Marvin says the Senate bill gives supporters of robocall reform “a great opportunity to mobilize all that support we’ve been building.” Despite what seems like popular backing, supporters of the bill aren’t predicting quick passage.
For help with particular debt collection issues, call Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at 1-800-332-8529.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email email@example.com.