Time for the Feds to Step In: Illegal and Abusive Debt Collection Threatens to Exacerbate Racial Inequality

In 2012, a pregnant woman in Colorado was arrested and jailed after being pulled over for a traffic violation. The reason? A debt collector went to court for a warrant for her arrest—not because she committed any crime, but because she apparently had not answered written questions in a proceeding to collect unpaid credit card debt. Her bond was set at $5,806—an exorbitant sum that just so happened to be the full amount of the debt she owed plus interest. Unable to pay, the woman spent a night in jail in yet another modern twist on the banned practice of debtors' prisons.

This story is part of a deeply troubling trend: private companies involved in debt collection are enlisting the power and prestige of courts and prosecutors to coerce people into making civil debt payments that they cannot afford or are not obligated to make. Last week, the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law sent a letter requesting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to investigate and root out these abusive practices under its authority to enforce the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and other consumer financial protection laws. Our letter expresses concern about companies' improper efforts to secure debtors' arrest and jailing to coerce consumer debt payments, as well as other harmful practices. The Bureau should make clear that the misuse of judicial power and prosecutorial authority for private gain is precisely the type of deception and abuse that Congress sought to ban in passing the FDCPA.

The practices we identify are not only illegal, they also likely exacerbate what is, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, the largest racial wealth gap experienced in our country in the past century. That study found that the median wealth of white households has expanded to 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. The last decade's racial discrimination in subprime lending—discrimination that the ACLU is challenging in Adkins v. Morgan Stanley—only worsened the problem by deliberately targeting minorities for loans that exposed them to higher rates of foreclosure and accompanying loss in wealth.

It is no surprise, then, that preliminary data suggests that communities of color may be more vulnerable than others to aggressive and abusive debt collection practices. A 2010 report found stark racial disparities after analyzing 2008 caller data from a legal hotline for people sued by a creditor or debt buyer. The study found that 69% of people sued by debt buyers were black or Latino, and that 66% of meritless cases were brought against black or Latino clients. A 2013 report found that the top six New York zip codes with the highest concentrations of default judgments against alleged debtors in 2011 lawsuits have populations that are over 90% non-white. (And on a micro-level, it is worth noting that the pregnant woman arrested and jailed in Colorado is Latina.) These figures support our concern that racial and ethnic minorities are disparately impacted by abusive and illegal debt collection practices, and that these practices threaten to worsen our country's already shameful racial wealth gap.

For these reasons, we call on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to be a leader in identifying race disparities resulting from abusive debt collection and to use its enforcement powers under federal laws to challenge practices that intentionally discriminate or result in that effect. After all, these practices should be abhorrent to the federal agency tasked with the mission to ensure that consumers are protected from not only deceptive, unfair, and abusive practices, but ones that discriminate as well.

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