Consumer Advocates, Debt Collectors Lock Horns Over Robocalls to Cellphones

Consumer advocates and debt collectors are in a dogfight over a proposal before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow robocalls to cellphones.

The proposal would allow businesses, including debt collectors, to make robocalls to cellphones if they “intended” to call the person in question.

Applicants for credit cards or loans usually sign forms agreeing to allow the lender to call them. But if people with unpaid debts give up their cellphones, their numbers can be reassigned to others.

ACA International, the association of debt collectors headquartered in Minnesota, is pressing for the change.

Cindy Sebrell of ACA says, “Consumers are in jeopardy of not receiving beneficial communications including fraud and identity theft, data breach information, and even early notification that an unpaid bill is at risk or has been sent to a collection agency.” She said most consumers would want to know immediately so they could rectify the situation.

Peter Barry, a local attorney who challenges collection agency practices, sent a memo to 5,000 lawyers and clients, urging them to oppose the proposal. He says robocalls will wrongly go to reassigned numbers. “They will robocall … anyone and then later claim that they had the wrong number,” he says. People with debt will face default judgments, and new cell owners would face harassment.

“Nobody avoids a foreclosure by getting a robocall,” Barry said. “Nobody keeps a good credit report by getting a robocall. Nobody prevents a repossession by getting a robocall. … It’s lousy legal advice advocating lousy public policy.”

Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are among 14 U.S. senators who wrote to the FCC to oppose the rule change.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson also wrote to the FCC, urging it to permit no exception to the law “that would allow debt collectors or others to place ‘robocalls’ to cellphones, only to later claim that the calls were made to a ‘wrong number’ in an attempt to evade liability.”

By Randy Furst