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N.J. debt-collection act closer to reality

The first call came in late April. Megan Duffy, a 21-year-old college student, picked up the phone at her parents' home in Belmar, N.J., and heard the voice of a debt collector.

The first call came in late April.

Megan Duffy, a 21-year-old college student, picked up the phone at her parents' home in Belmar, N.J., and heard the voice of a debt collector.

With just one credit card and a few hospital bills to pay off, she wasn't fazed.

"I explained my situation to him," she said. "I'm going to school so I can get a good job so I can pay off this debt."

But "he just did not get it through his head," she said. She has received daily calls since that first one, she said, describing them as nasty and intimidating.

For Duffy and other New Jersey residents who feel besieged by debt collectors, relief could be on the way. An Assembly committee on June 4 approved the New Jersey Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which would expand a 1977 federal law and give victims of harassment access to help at the state level.

Because there is no state law, most complaints are forwarded to the Federal Trade Commission, where they might not get the attention they deserve, according to Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), a cosponsor of the bill.

"New Jersey's long overdue to come up with a state statute," Burzichelli said. "It allows our Division of Consumer Affairs a straight line of action."

The bill would more strictly regulate the communication debt collectors can have with debtors, and impose harsher penalties on violators.

Supporters of the bill say abusive debt-collection practices - repeated phone calls, misrepresentations, calls at work, calls to employers and family members - are out of hand and need to be dealt with at the state level. Some critics, however, feel the bill would amount to overregulation.

The measure would restrict when (between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.) and where (not at the debtor's place of employment) a collector could contact a debtor, and would prohibit a collector from talking to a family member before obtaining a judgment against the debtor.

Under the proposed law, debt collectors could not threaten criminal proceedings or other legal action unless they intend to follow through.

It would also prohibit collectors from using misleading representations or deception, using unfair or unconscionable means, and engaging in conduct that is harassing, oppressing, intimidating, or abusive.

Such provisions might have been helpful to Duffy, a Brookdale Community College student.

"He was trying to intimidate me to the fullest in that phone call," she said of her first experience with the collector. "It's obvious that I've never talked to a debt collector. . . . He was like, 'Let me scare this girl.' "

The collector, from Central Credit Services Inc., of Jacksonville, Fla., told her she was going to have a "hard time" if she didn't pay off her debt, in full, immediately, she said. The caller, she said, badgered her to have a friend or family member pay her debt.

She said she still wasn't sure whether she was being called about the hospital bills or the credit-card debt, which is about $900.

Calls to the Florida firm for comment were not returned.

The bill imposes a maximum penalty of $10,000 for the first offense and a maximum of $20,000 for the second, a provision consumer-law experts say would make the proposed legislation one of the strictest state laws in the nation.

Burzichelli hopes to have the bill through the Assembly before the summer break, through the Senate in the fall, and signed into law by the end of the year.

Fair-practice laws on debt collection vary from state to state. Pennsylvania has similar regulations with lesser penalties.

According to David Szuchman, director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, the proposed legislation is desperately needed in New Jersey. At the June 4 Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee hearing, Szuchman said 787 debt-collection complaints had come through the division last year, 368 for alleged harassment. In 2007, the division received 753 complaints.

The numbers, Szuchman said, highlight "how widespread a problem this is for our consumers."

"Currently we are virtually powerless to help them because there is no New Jersey law that exists," Szuchman said in his testimony. "New Jersey's consumers deserve better. They need a voice."

Nationally, complaints about the behavior of debt collectors have spiked with the recession.

Sergei Lemberg, who specializes in consumer law at the Connecticut firm Lemberg & Associates, said the current number of debt-collector cases was "tremendous."

"Right now it's a good chunk of our business," said Lemberg, who has been working with Duffy.

According to Lemberg's marketing director, Cheryl Richter, the increase can be attributed to the rising unemployment rate.

"There's a fresh group of people who have never had problems with credit before," Richter said. "All of a sudden, the debt collectors know those are good targets for them to harass and abuse."

In its 2009 report to Congress, the FTC noted an increase in national consumer complaints about in-house and third-party debt collectors from 2007 to 2008. In 2008, the commission received 104,661 complaints, compared with 89,934 in 2007.

In 2008, 34.7 percent of all complaints were claims of harassment by collectors, compared with 19.7 percent in 2007.

Debt-collection agencies say enough is being done at the federal level.

"We are already federally mandated," said Sheryl Gambarella, vice president of the New Jersey Association of Collection Agencies. "There are rules and regulations we have to follow, and if it's not enough, it goes either state or federally to court."

Gambarella testified at the June 4 hearing on behalf of NJACA. In addition to overregulating agencies, Gambarella said, the bill has several problematic parts, such as its provision for punitive damages awarded to victimized debtors.

Other critics, including the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, say the law would make it more difficult for a company to follow existing regulations, as laws vary from state to state.

"For a company that operates in a variety of states, you actually make compliance more difficult," said Christine Stearns, NJBIA's vice president of health and legal affairs. "By adding an additional and slightly different law, you make those compliance efforts more difficult for those companies that are trying to comply with the law."

Lemberg said his firm handled 50 to 100 debt-collection cases a month.

The most common problems clients come to him with are debt collectors who threaten arrest or legal action, make repeated calls at work, call family members and employers, or misrepresent themselves on the phone.

"They basically stalk you," Lemberg said. "They don't have to be nice about it."

Debt collectors often threaten to send a law official to a debtor's home, for example, which Lemberg said is not only a complete bluff, as someone cannot be arrested for not paying a private debt, but also illegal.

"The threat of arrest is a violation of the law for a number of different things," he said, among them, "it's illegal to threaten criminal prosecution to collect a civil debt."

So how do debt collectors get away with these practices?

"Most people are completely and entirely clueless," Lemberg said. "What's troubling is how little people know about their rights, especially their rights against abuse. Most people don't know anything about it."

Burzichelli said his bill was in no way intended to eradicate or forgive a debt.

"It just sets a very clear standard of communication," he said.