This blog post is part two of a five-part series examining the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (the “CFPB” or “Bureau”) proposed rule amending Regulation F (the “Proposed Rule”), which implements the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) to prescribe rules governing the activities of debt collectors.
This post summarizes the key provisions of the Proposed Rule relating to debt collector communications with consumers. These include communications-related provisions regarding:
- Electronic communications safe-harbor;
- Opt-out notice requirement;
- Time and place restrictions;
- Workplace email addresses;
- Social media platform communications;
- Communication media restrictions;
- “Limited-content” messages; and
- Telephone call frequency limits.
This post also describes potential issues with certain communications provisions of the Proposed Rule, including uncertainty in scope, application, and operational considerations. The Bureau is currently accepting public comment on the Proposed Rule.
Electronic Communications Safe-Harbor
The FDCPA generally provides that debt collectors may not, without the prior consent of the consumer, communicate in connection with the collection of any debt with any person other than the consumer (15 USC 1692c). However, in the event a debt collector unintentionally violates this rule, FDCPA section 813(c) provides that a debt collector can avoid liability by showing that the violation was not intentional, resulted from a bona fide error, and that it occurred even though the debt collector maintained reasonable procedures designed to avoid the error.
The Proposed Rule applies these concepts expressly to electronic communications, and provides a 3rd-party communication “safe harbor” (12 CFR 1006.6(d)(3)) that sets forth procedures for debt collectors to avoid liability when they unintentionally communicate with an unauthorized third party about a consumer’s debt when trying to communicate with the consumer by email or text message.
This safe harbor would apply when a debt collector maintains procedures that are “reasonably adapted” to avoid an error in sending an email or text message that would result in a violation of the FDCPA’s prohibition against unauthorized 3rd party communications. Specifically, such procedures must include steps to “reasonably confirm and document” that the debt collector electronically communicated with the consumer using one of 3 types of contact information:
- An email address or phone number that the consumer recently used to contact the debt collector for purposes other than opting out of electronic communications; or
- A non-work email address or a non-work phone number, if the debt collector notified the consumer that it might use that email address or phone number for debt collection communications (and provides certain other disclosures set forth in the rule); or
- A non-work email address or a non-work phone number that the creditor or a prior debt collector obtained from the consumer to communicate about the debt if, before the debt was placed with the collector, the creditor or prior collector recently sent communications to that email address or phone number, and the consumer did not request that such address or number cease being used.
The debt collector must also have taken additional steps to prevent communications using an email address or phone number that the debt collector knows has previously led to an unauthorized disclosure to a 3rd party.
Notably, to be protected from liability under this safe harbor, a debt collector would need to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the debt collector’s disclosure to the third party was unintentional and that the debt collector did, in fact, maintain the specified procedures.
There are potential issues with this proposal however. For example, it is unclear how Regulation F’s rules regarding electronic communications would interact with other communication regulations such as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). It would be helpful for the CFPB to provide guidance on whether Regulation F is meant to supersede TCPA requirements to the extent they are inconsistent. It is also unclear how the CFPB views alternative communication channels such as app-based (push) notifications. That is, would these notifications be treated the same as text messages or emails? Or like phone calls? Or some separate standard since the consumer may be granting authorization when they install the app?
The Proposed Rule also includes an “opt-out notice” rule (12 CFR 1006.6(e)) which requires that emails, text messages, and other electronic communications include clear and conspicuous instructions for how the consumer can opt-out of receiving such communications.
This rule was designed to limit the frequency of electronic communications sent by debt collectors (since the telephone call frequency limit described in 12 CFR 1006.14(b) wouldn’t apply to emails or text messages), and also to limit any associated costs such communications might impart to consumers. This rule would also prohibit debt collectors from conditioning the opt-out on the payment of any fee or the consumer providing any information other than the email address or phone number they are opting-out.
One potential area of uncertainty regarding the opt-out requirement is what form the opt-out procedure must actually take. That is, while the rule states that the procedure must be described in electronic communications, and the CFPB has noted that a consumer should be able to, “with minimal effort and cost, stop the debt collector from sending further written electronic communications,” the Proposed Rule does not specify any standard for what the collector’s opt-out procedure must look like in terms of the specific steps the consumer must take to opt out. For instance, can a debt collector require that opt-out requests be in writing? Or can they require consumers to call a certain phone number? And would the customer be required to specify one or all electronic communications be subject to the opt-out? The CFPB has requested comments on this proposed rule that may provide insight on these questions.
Time and Place Restrictions
The FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from communicating or attempting to communicate with consumers at times or places that the collector “knows or should know” are inconvenient. The Proposed Rule regarding time and place restrictions (12 CFR 1006.6(b)(1)) clarifies that calls to mobile phones, as well as text messages and emails, are subject to this prohibition. The CFPB interprets this prohibition to mean that a time before 8:00 a.m. and after 9:00 p.m. local time at the consumer’s location is per se inconvenient, unless the debt collector has knowledge of circumstances to the contrary.
Moreover, the CFPB’s commentary on this proposed rule seeks to clarify two points of ambiguity in the FDCPA rule. First, the CFPB notes that, for purposes of determining the time of an electronic communication under this rule, a communication occurs when the debt collector initiates or sends it, not when the consumer receives or views it. Second, the rule would provide a safe harbor where a debt collector has conflicting or ambiguous information regarding a consumer’s location, such as phone numbers with area codes located in different time zones, or a phone number with an area code and a physical address that are inconsistent. Specifically, under this proposal, the debt collector would not violate the prohibition on communicating at inconvenient times if it communicated with the consumer at a time that would be convenient in all of the locations where the debt collector’s information indicated the consumer might be located. For example, in the time zones related to a consumer’s residence, as well as their mobile phone area code.
However, there are also potential issues with this proposed rule. The first is that the “knows or should know” standard is subjective, and it would be very difficult for debt collectors to interpret subjective consumer statements regarding when and where they do not want to be contacted. For example, if a consumer tells the collector not to communicate with them “at school,” it is unclear what period of time that would cover, since a consumer might only attend classes at night or on certain days of the week. Similarly, it is unclear how debt collectors should approach contacting servicemembers on active duty; that is, where a creditor or debt collector has received active duty orders as part of a request for protections under the Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act, should the debt collector assume that any communication with a servicemember is inconvenient while on active duty? Or is the presumption in favor of attempting to communicate with such servicemembers to notify them of potential issues with their accounts, assuming such contact is made between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. local time where the servicemember indicated they are based?
A second issue arises where debts are assigned or transferred. The proposed rule states that a collector should know that communications at any times or places previously identified by the consumer as inconvenient are prohibited. This would place a substantial burden on creditors and servicers to transfer that information along as debts are assigned or transferred during the debt collections process.
Workplace Email Addresses
Regulation F also proposes a rule regarding communications to a consumer’s workplace email address (12 CFR 1006.22(f)(3)). Under this proposed rule, debt collectors are prohibited from contacting a consumer using an email address that the debt collector knows or should know is provided by the consumer’s employer, unless the debt collector has received either: (i) prior consent to use that email address, or (ii) an email from that email address, directly from the consumer. However, a consumer’s prior consent to receive email on their work account from a creditor would not transfer to a debt collector.
The CFPB explained that emails are prohibited where the debt collector can reasonably anticipate that they might be opened and read by someone other than the consumer, and warned that that many employers have a legal right to read messages sent or received by employees on their work email accounts.
We believe the CFPB should provide clarification on several aspects of this proposed rule, including:
- the circumstances under which a debt collector would be deemed to “know or should know” that the debt collector is emailing a consumer’s work email address and, if so, what circumstances should indicate to a debt collector that an email address is a work email address;
- what, exactly, constitutes prior consent? For example, if a consumer provides a work email address on their loan application, it is unclear whether that would be considered consent, or whether additional disclosures or consents would be required; and
- whether this rule would apply only to email contacts with the actual person obligated to pay a debt, or whether it should be broadened to apply to such person’s spouse, parent, guardian, or executor, since the proposed definition of “consumer” under 12 CFR 1006.6(a) includes such persons.
Moreover, because this proposed rule prohibits workplace emails when the debt collector knows that the employer bars its employees from receiving them, this would impose a significant burden on debt collectors since, in order to comply with this requirement, they would need to maintain a database of employers who prohibit such communications, and then block communications to emails on that list.
Social Media Platforms
Regulation F also proposes a rule regulating debt collectors’ communications through social media (12 CFR 1006.22(f)(4)). This proposed rule would prohibit a debt collector from communicating with a consumer in connection with the collection of a debt via social media platform, if such communication is viewable by a person other than the consumer (or certain other persons exempted from this rule).
The CFPB noted that this rule aims to prevent: (1) unauthorized communications with 3rd parties, (2) consumer privacy violations, and (3) harassing, oppressing, or abusing consumers.
It is presumed, though not expressly provided in the text of the proposed rule, that social media communications that are not viewable by third parties, such as those sent through private messaging functions, are not prohibited by this rule. However, there is some risk in this presumption because although such private messages are typically meant only for the targeted individual, it is possible they could be seen or heard by third parties, such as employers or family members, as is the case with other forms of communication (like voicemails). It remains to be seen how the CFPB will reconcile this. One approach to avoid this issue might be for debt collectors to limit the content of such messages to what is permitted under the proposed “limited-content message” definition, described below. However, it is also unclear if such limited-content messages sent via social media – whether public or private – would be deemed “communications” for purposes of the social media communication restrictions, as opposed to in the voicemail context, since the message would likely contain information identifying the sender, as is the case with email.
Communication Media Restrictions
The Proposed Rule’s “prohibited communication media” provision (12 CFR 1006.14(h)) would prohibit debt collectors from communicating with a consumer through any medium that the consumer has requested the debt collector not use. The CFPB explained that once a consumer has requested that a debt collector not use a specific medium to communicate with them, it may be considered harassment, oppression, or abuse of the consumer for the debt collector to continue using that same medium.
There are, however, two exceptions to this rule: First, if a consumer opts out of receiving electronic communications from a debt collector in writing, the debt collector may reply once to confirm the consumer’s request to opt out, provided that the reply contains no information other than a statement confirming the consumer’s request. Second, if a consumer initiates contact with a debt collector using an address or a phone number that the consumer previously requested the debt collector not use, the debt collector may respond once to that consumer-initiated communication (though it is unclear what, if any, restrictions apply to that one response).
A potential issue with implementing this rule is that there may be circumstances where applicable law requires the debt collector to communicate with the consumer only through one specific medium, and does not offer an alternative medium that would be compliant. The Bureau has requested comment with regard to such laws, and whether additional clarification is needed regarding the delivery of legally required communications through a specific medium of communication where the consumer has requested that the debt collector not use that medium.
One of the more interesting and noteworthy proposals under Regulation F is the creation of a “Limited-Content Message” safe harbor, which may resolve the long-standing “Voice Mail Paradox.”
By way of brief background, the voicemail paradox emerged due to the conflict between, on the one hand, the FDCPA requirement that debt collectors provide – in “communications” with consumers – a “mini-Miranda” disclosure identifying themselves as debt collectors, and on the other hand, the FDCPA prohibition against disclosing debt information to 3rd parties. For example, if a debt collector provides no mini-Miranda disclosure in a voicemail message to a consumer when required, it would expose itself to liability; but at the same time, if the debt collector did provide the mini-Miranda disclosure in the voicemail, and a third party overhears that information, the rule prohibiting 3rd party communication may be violated. Federal courts are currently split on how to resolve this issue.
This proposed definition of “Limited-Content Message” (12 CFR 1006.2(j)) provides a possible resolution to the paradox because the limited-content message would not, by definition, be considered a “communication” at all; and therefore, no mini-Miranda disclosure would be required under the FDCPA, and if the message was seen or heard by a third party, it would not constitute a prohibited third-party disclosure.
Specifically, the proposed limited-content message must include all of the following: the consumer’s name, a request that the consumer reply to the message, the name or names of one or more natural persons whom the consumer can contact in reply, a telephone number that the consumer can use to reply, and, if delivered electronically, a disclosure explaining how the consumer can opt-out from receiving such messages.
Additionally, a limited-content message may optionally include one or more of the following: a salutation, the date and time of the message, a generic statement that the message relates to an account, and suggested dates and times for the consumer to reply to the message. Under the CFPB’s interpretation, none of these items, individually or collectively, would convey that the consumer owes a debt or other information regarding a debt.
The CFPB has requested comment on numerous aspects of the limited-content message proposal, including:
- whether any of the content permitted under this proposed rule should, in fact, be interpreted as conveying information regarding a debt;
- whether allowing a limited-content message to include a generic statement that the message relates to an “account” raises a risk that the message would convey information about a debt to a third party, or whether there is an alternative statement that would minimize such risk; and
- whether there is sufficient information required or permitted in the limited-content message to prompt consumers to respond, and if not, what additional information could be included in the message that would not cause the message to constitute a “communication.”
While this safe harbor does present a potential resolution to the voicemail paradox, there has been some industry concern over whether consumers will be less likely to respond to limited-content messages when they don’t know the name of the company trying to reach them. That is, even if the agent provides their personal name as required under the limited content message guidelines, the consumer would still not know the company who is trying to reach them, or the purpose of the call, so they may be less likely to respond. This also gives rise to a concern over whether consumers who do return these calls will complain of being misled or deceived when they return the call and find out it was a debt collection call.
It is also unclear how caller ID functions may have an impact on the limited-content message provisions, since caller IDs may display the debt collection agency’s name, and such information would fall outside of the limited content permitted under the proposed rule. Notably, limited-content messages are not permitted via email, because the sender’s email address may disclose its identity, so it is not clear why a caller ID identification would be treated differently. Moreover, it is unclear how the limited-content message safe harbor would interact with state laws that require certain disclosures be contained in all debt collector communications with consumers. It is possible that industry comments – which are currently being submitted to the CFPB – may address these concerns.
Telephone Call Frequency Limits
Finally, Regulation F also proposes a rule limiting the number of telephone calls a debt collector may place to a consumer about a particular debt, and making a violation of such limit a per se violation of the FDCPA’s prohibition on repetitive or continuous calling, and the Dodd-Frank Act’s UDAP provisions (12 CFR 1006.14(b)). Specifically, this call frequency limit would prohibit debt collectors from:
- calling a consumer about a particular debt more than seven times within a seven-day period; or
- engaging in more than one telephone conversation with a consumer about a particular debt within a seven-day period.
Notably, the Bureau does not propose subjecting email, text messages, or other electronic communications to the proposed frequency limits – it would apply only to telephone calls.
There are also certain types of phone calls excluded from the proposed frequency limits which do not count toward, and are permitted in excess of, such limits. In particular:
- calls made to respond to a request for information from the consumer;
- calls made with the consumer’s prior consent given directly to the debt collector;
- calls that are not connected to the dialed number; or
- calls with the consumer’s attorney; a consumer reporting agency; the creditor; the creditor’s attorney; or the debt collector’s attorney.
The CFPB has left open several questions regarding the proposed call frequency limits, to which we expect industry participants to respond during the comment period. These include:
- whether the frequency limit should be set at seven calls to a particular consumer within seven days, or whether that limit should be higher or lower;
- whether the frequency of calls should be measured on a per-week basis as currently proposed, or some alternate time period such as a daily or monthly limit;
- whether calls placed about a particular debt to different telephone numbers associated with the same consumer should be counted together in aggregate for purposes of determining whether a debt collector has exceeded the proposed call frequency limit; and
- whether the frequency limits should be applied on a per-debt, rather than on a per-consumer, basis. For example, under the current proposed rule, a debt collector who is attempting to collect two debts from the same consumer can permissibly place up to 14 calls in one week to that consumer.
Part 3 of this blog series on Regulation F will address proposed requirements regarding disclosures and other debt collector conduct.