Robocalls about your bills can come in every day, all day

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IN THE CAR WHERE Paula Hanson lives, often parked outside a local sheriff’s station in Lancaster, California, her phone kept ringing.

Hanson tried to explain to Discover Bank employees everything that had happened to him. First she had been fired from her job, then her father fell ill and she moved into his home to care for him. Shortly after his death last year, Hanson, 62, became homeless. She just didn’t have the money to tackle the $17,000 credit card debt she owed Discover.

Still, the calls continued: “At first it was once a day,” Hanson said, “but then they started getting, like, three times a day.” Finally, according to his lawyer, the bank called him five times a day.

In an effort to end the calls, Hanson at one point agreed to make a one-time $50 payment to Discover, even though she had less than $200 in her bank account.

“I have to make sure I have money to eat,” she said, “but the way they pressure you, they make you feel like you have to.”

MORE THAN A QUARTER of consumers are currently receiving robocalls about overdue bills, according to data provided to CNBC by YouMail, a robocall blocking service. For many, the calls are incessant. “Some people get hundreds of calls in a month about a late payment or a debt,” said Alex Quilici, managing director of YouMail.

People often associate the flood of robocalls with scammers. Yet on a ranking this year of bot callers by volume, 8 of the top 10 were looking for late payment (although this list doesn’t take into account when companies deploy many different phone numbers to reach people).

COMPANIES USE autodialers to collect debts because they’re cheap and easy to use, said Jeff Hansen, an information technology expert. When he worked in a call center, Hansen said, they called more than a million people per hour for less than a penny per call.

But the way the technology works makes it difficult for consumers to stop calls, he said.

“You get 10 calls in a day, and on the first call you say, ‘I don’t have the money. Stop calling, “but these automated procedures keep people out of the loop,” he said. “The dialer has been busy all day, so it will continue to call you.”

Discover employees provide the right strategy for anyone struggling to make payments, said Derek Cuculich, the company’s senior public relations manager. “We determine their situation and work with them to find a solution to help them through the difficult times,” Cuculich said.

TONYA STEVENS BOUGHT a few items, including a washer and dryer, in 2014 from Conn’s HomePlus, a Texas-headquartered furniture store chain.

She said she made many of her monthly payments, but sent them later than the store wanted. Conn’s employees called her morning, noon and night, said Stevens, 49. “I was getting five to 11 calls a day,” she said.

Stevens was pushed over the edge, she said, as she cared for her dying grandmother. “I called them screaming, hollering, ‘Let me bury my grandmother,'” she said.

In total, Conn called her more than 1,800 times, according to her lawyer.

“As standard operating procedure, our team follows all applicable laws and regulations, only calling customers who have an outstanding debt,” said Conn’s spokeswoman Ivette Faulkner. “Once a payment is arranged, we interrupt customer calls.”

Under President Donald Trump’s “industry-friendly” administration, companies are ramping up their debt collection calls, said Billy Peerce Howard, an attorney at The Consumer Protection Firm in Tampa, Florida. “Consumers calling my office and complaining about harassment have literally doubled overnight since Trump was elected,” Howard said.

And they could soon pick up even more.

The Federal Communications Commission is deciding the scope of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits companies from automatically dialing people’s cellphones without their permission. Consumer advocates worry the rule is so thin that most businesses can operate outside of it.

“If the FCC comes up with a definition as requested by the US Chamber of Commerce and all other callers, then all of those calls made from those automated systems will not be covered and we will not be able to stop them,” a said Margot Saunders, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, “It’s going to be a lot worse than today.”

FCC spokesman Will Wiquist said the current commission has taken more action to stop illegal robocalls than any before it. “[W]We will continue to fight all illegal robocalls with all the tools we have,” he said.

Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission

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COMPANIES SAY THEY NEED be able to contact their delinquent consumers without facing “frivolous” lawsuits under the Consumer Protection Act over the phone. “Making sure debts are collected is important to the fundamentals of our economy,” said Harold Kim, chief operating officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform.

Appeals also protect consumers, Kim said, often preventing foreclosures and car seizures.

For the many financially precarious Americans today, it’s easy to fall behind on a bill, said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “We live in an economy where people don’t have a lot of savings and rely on credit to buy things,” Rheingold said.

The repeated calls make their situation worse, he said, forcing them to pay their bills “out of order”. For example, a person may give in to a caller and pay a credit card bill, then not be able to send their next rent check.

“It’s not a good financial plan to pay the people who bother you the most,” Rheingold said. “You need to prioritize these debts according to your needs.”

PEOPLE ALSO DESCRIBE a psychological price to these calls. Karl — who asked to use his first name only to protect his privacy — bought off his fiancé an engagement ring for around $2,500 at a Sterling Jewelers store in Florida in 2015.

Soon after, his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, and Karl took time off from work to visit him in New York. His employer did not offer paid time off, and Karl soon fell behind on his debts, including his monthly $120 bill for the ring.

Calls from Sterling Jewelry began almost immediately, he said.

“There were times when they called me nine or ten times a day,” Karl, 36, said. “I told them what was going on, and the calls still came.” According to Karl’s attorney, the company called him more than 1,300 times.

“It makes you feel less like a person,” he said.

David Bouffard, vice president of corporate affairs at Signet, the global parent company of Sterling Jewelers, said its policies are designed to ensure customers are treated with respect and fairness.

“We meet our legal and ethical obligations,” Bouffard said.

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