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Rule

Debt Collection Practices (Regulation F)

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AGENCY:

Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.

ACTION:

Final rule; official interpretation.

SUMMARY:

The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (Bureau) is issuing this final rule to revise Regulation F, which implements the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and currently contains the procedures for State application for exemption from the provisions of the FDCPA. The Bureau is finalizing Federal rules governing the activities of debt collectors, as that term is defined in the FDCPA. The Bureau's final rule addresses, among other things, communications in connection with debt collection and prohibitions on harassment or abuse, false or misleading representations, and unfair practices in debt collection.

DATES:

This rule is effective November 30, 2021.

Start Further Info

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:

Dania Ayoubi, Joseph Baressi, Seth Caffrey, Brandy Hood, David Jacobs, Courtney Jean, Jaclyn Maier, Adam Mayle, Kristin McPartland, Michael Scherzer, or Michael Silver, Senior Counsels, Office of Regulations, at 202-435-7700. If you require this document in an alternative electronic format, please contact CFPB_Accessibility@cfpb.gov.

End Further Info End Preamble Start Supplemental Information

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

I. Summary of the Final Rule

The Bureau is finalizing amendments to Regulation F, 12 CFR part 1006, which implements the FDCPA.[1] The amendments prescribe Federal rules governing the activities of debt collectors, as that term is defined in the FDCPA (debt collectors or FDCPA debt collectors). The final rule focuses on debt collection communications and related practices by debt collectors.

In 1977, Congress passed the FDCPA to eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors, to ensure that those debt collectors who refrain from using abusive debt collection practices are not competitively disadvantaged, and to promote consistent State action to protect consumers against debt collection abuses.[2] The statute was a response to “abundant evidence of the use of abusive, deceptive, and unfair debt collection practices by many debt collectors.” [3] According to Congress, these practices “contribute to the number of personal bankruptcies, to marital instability, to the loss of jobs, and to invasions of individual privacy.” [4]

The FDCPA established specific consumer protections, enabling consumers to establish controls on when and how debt collectors contact them, establishing privacy protections surrounding the collection of debts, and protecting consumers from certain collection practices. The FDCPA also established broad consumer protections, prohibiting harassment or abuse, false or misleading representations, and unfair practices. As the first Federal agency with authority under the FDCPA to prescribe substantive rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors, the Bureau is adopting this final rule to implement and interpret those consumer protections, including by clarifying how they apply to newer communication technologies. The Bureau intends to issue a disclosure-focused final rule in December 2020 (disclosure-focused final rule) to implement and interpret the FDCPA's requirements regarding consumer disclosures and certain related consumer protections.

A. Coverage and Organization of the Final Rule

The final rule is based primarily on the Bureau's authority to issue rules to implement the FDCPA and, consequently, covers debt collectors, as that term is defined in the FDCPA.[5] The final rule restates nearly all of the FDCPA's substantive provisions largely in the order that they appear in the statute, sometimes without further interpretation. Restating the statutory text in this way should facilitate understanding and compliance by making it possible for stakeholders to, in general, consult only the regulation to view relevant definitions and substantive provisions. Except where specifically stated, by restating the statutory text, the Bureau does not intend to codify existing case law or judicial interpretations of the statute.

The final rule has four subparts. Subpart A contains generally applicable provisions, such as definitions that apply throughout the regulation. Subpart B contains rules for FDCPA debt collectors. Subpart C is reserved for any future debt collection rulemakings. Subpart D contains certain miscellaneous provisions.

B. Scope of the Final Rule

Communications Provisions

Debt collection efforts often begin with attempts by a debt collector to reach a consumer. Communicating with a debt collector may benefit a consumer by helping the consumer either to resolve a debt the consumer owes or to identify and inform the debt collector if the debt is one that the consumer does not owe. However, debt collection communications also may constitute unfair practices, may contain false or misleading representations, or may be harassing or abusive either because of their content (for example, when debt collectors employ profanity) or because of the manner in which they are made (for example, when debt collectors place telephone calls with the intent to harass or abuse).

To address such concerns about debt collection communications and to clarify the application of the FDCPA to newer communication technologies that have developed since the FDCPA's passage in 1977, the final rule, in general:

  • Clarifies restrictions on the times and places at which a debt collector may communicate with a consumer, including by clarifying that a consumer need not use specific words to assert that a time or place is inconvenient for debt collection communications.
  • Clarifies that a consumer may restrict the media through which a debt collector communicates by designating a particular medium, such as email, as one that cannot be used for debt collection communications.
  • Clarifies that a debt collector is presumed to violate the FDCPA's prohibition on repeated or continuous telephone calls if the debt collector places a telephone call to a person more than seven times within a seven-day period or within seven days after engaging in a telephone conversation with the person. It also clarifies that a debt collector is presumed to comply with that prohibition if the debt collector places a telephone call not in excess of either of those telephone call frequencies. The final rule also provides non-exhaustive lists of factors that may Start Printed Page 76735be used to rebut the presumption of compliance or of a violation.
  • Clarifies that newer communication technologies, such as emails and text messages, may be used in debt collection, with certain limitations to protect consumer privacy and to protect consumers from harassment or abuse, false or misleading representations, or unfair practices. For example, the final rule requires that each of a debt collector's emails and text messages must include instructions for a reasonable and simple method by which a consumer can opt out of receiving further emails or text messages. The final rule also provides that a debt collector may obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure if the debt collector follows the procedures identified in the rule when communicating with a consumer by email or text message.[6]
  • Defines a new term related to debt collection communications: Limited-content message. This definition identifies what information a debt collector must and may include in a voicemail message for consumers (with the inclusion of no other information permitted) for the message to be deemed not to be a communication under the FDCPA. This definition permits a debt collector to leave a voicemail message for a consumer that is not a communication under the FDCPA or the final rule and therefore is not subject to certain requirements or restrictions.

Consumer Disclosure Provisions

The FDCPA requires that a debt collector provide certain disclosures to the consumer. The final rule clarifies the standards a debt collector must meet when sending the required disclosures in writing or electronically.

Additional Provisions

The final rule addresses certain other consumer protection concerns in the debt collection market. For example, the final rule includes provisions clarifying debt collectors' obligation to retain records evidencing compliance or noncompliance with the FDCPA and Regulation F; prohibiting the sale, transfer for consideration, or placement for collection of certain debts; and clarifying debt collectors' obligations when responding to duplicative disputes. The final rule also clarifies that the personal representative of a deceased consumer's estate is a consumer for purposes of § 1006.6, which addresses communications in connection with debt collection. This clarification generally allows a debt collector to discuss a debt with the personal representative of a deceased consumer's estate. The final rule also clarifies how a debt collector may locate the personal representative of a deceased consumer's estate.

Disclosure-Focused Final Rule

The Bureau is reserving certain sections of Regulation F for a disclosure-focused final rule that, as noted above, the Bureau intends to publish in December 2020 to clarify the information that a debt collector must provide to a consumer at the outset of debt collection and to provide a model notice containing the information required by FDCPA section 809(a). The Bureau also plans to address in the disclosure-focused final rule consumer protection concerns related to requirements prior to furnishing consumer reporting information and the collection of debt that is beyond the statute of limitations (i.e., time-barred debt).

II. Background

A. Debt Collection Market Background

A consumer debt is commonly understood to be a consumer's obligation to pay money to another person or entity. Sometimes a debt arises out of a closed-end loan. Other times, a debt arises from a consumer's use of an open-end line of credit, commonly a credit card. And in other cases, a debt arises from a consumer's purchase of goods or services with payment due thereafter. Often there is an agreed-upon payment schedule or date by which the consumer must repay the debt.

For a variety of reasons, consumers sometimes are unable or unwilling to make payments when they are due. Collection efforts may directly recover some or all of the overdue amounts owed to debt owners and thereby may indirectly help to keep consumer credit available and more affordable to consumers.[7] Collection activities also can lead to repayment plans or debt restructuring that may provide consumers with additional time to make payments or resolve their debts on more manageable terms.[8]

The debt collection industry includes creditors, third-party debt collectors (including debt collection law firms), debt buyers, and a wide variety of related service providers. Debt collection is estimated to be a $12.7 billion-dollar industry employing nearly 123,000 people across approximately 7,800 collection agencies in the United States.[9]

Creditors

When an account becomes delinquent, initial collection efforts often are undertaken by the original creditor or its servicer. The FDCPA typically does not cover such recovery efforts and, if they result in resolution of the debt, whether through payment in full or another arrangement, the consumer typically will not interact with a third-party debt collector.

Third-Party Debt Collectors

If a consumer's payment obligations remain unmet, a creditor may send the account to a third-party debt collector to recover on the debt in the third-party debt collector's name. A creditor may choose to send an account to a third-party debt collector for several reasons, including because the third-party debt collector possesses capabilities and expertise that the creditor lacks. Third-party debt collectors usually are paid on a contingency basis, typically a percentage of recoveries; debt collectors contracting with creditors on a contingency basis generated a large majority of the industry's 2019 revenue.[10] Contingency debt collectors compete with one another to secure business from creditors based on, among other factors, the debt collectors' effectiveness in obtaining recoveries.[11]

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B. Debt Buyers

If contingency collections prove unsuccessful—or if a particular creditor prefers not to use such third-party debt collectors—a creditor may sell unpaid accounts to a debt buyer. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) called the advent and growth of debt buying “the most significant change in the debt collection business” in recent years.[12] Debt buyers purchase defaulted debt from creditors or other debt owners and thereby take title to the debt. Credit card debt comprises a large majority of the debt that debt buyers purchase.[13] Debt buyers generated about one-third of debt collection revenue, or about $3.5 billion, in 2017.[14] Creditors who sell their uncollected debt to debt buyers receive a certain up-front return, but these debts typically are sold at prices that are less than their face value. Debt buyers typically price their offers for portfolios based upon their projections of the amount they will be able to collect. The debt buyer incurs the risk of recovering less than the sum of the amount it paid to acquire the debt and its expenses to collect the debt.

Typically, a debt buyer engages in debt collection, attempting to collect debts itself. However, a debt buyer also may use a third-party debt collector or a series of such debt collectors. If the debt buyer is unable to collect some of the debts it purchased, the debt buyer may sell the debt again to another debt buyer. Any single debt thus may be owned by multiple entities over its lifetime. The price paid for a debt generally will decline as the debt ages and passes from debt buyer to debt buyer, because the probability of payment decreases.[15]

Debt Collection Law Firms

A debt owner may try to recover on a debt through litigation, either after unsuccessful debt collection attempts or as a primary collection activity. Most debt collection litigation is filed in State courts. Debt owners often retain law firms and attorneys that specialize in debt collection and that are familiar with State and local rules. If a debt owner obtains a judgment in its favor, post-litigation efforts may include garnishment of wages or seizure of assets.

B. Debt Collection Methods

The debt collection experience is a common one—approximately one in three consumers with a credit record reported having been contacted about a debt in collection in 2014.[16] Of those, 27 percent reported having been contacted about a single debt over the prior year, 57 percent reported having been contacted about two to four debts, and 16 percent reported having been contacted about more than four debts.[17]

A creditor typically stops communicating with a consumer once responsibility for an account has moved to a third-party debt collector. Active debt collection efforts typically begin with the debt collector attempting to locate the consumer, usually by identifying a valid telephone number or mailing address, so that the debt collector can establish contact with the consumer. To obtain current contact information, a debt collector may look to information that transferred with the account file, public records, data sellers, or proprietary databases of contact information. A debt collector may also attempt to obtain location information for a consumer from third parties, such as family members who share a residence with the consumer or colleagues at the consumer's workplace.

Once a debt collector has obtained contact information for a consumer, the debt collector typically will seek to communicate with the consumer to obtain payment on some or all of the debt. The debt collector may tailor the collection strategy depending on a variety of factors, including the size and age of the debt and the debt collector's assessment of the likelihood of obtaining money from the consumer. Other types of debt are subject to statutory or regulatory requirements that may affect how a debt collector tries to recover on them. For example, privacy protections may affect how a debt collector seeks to recover on a medical debt, and the availability of administrative wage garnishment and tax refund intercepts may affect how a debt collector seeks to recover on a Federal student loan.

Changes in a consumer's situation may warrant a change in a debt collector's recovery strategy, such as when information purchased from consumer reporting agencies or other third parties indicates that the consumer has started a new job. A debt owner also may “warehouse” a debt and cease collection efforts for a significant period. A new debt collector may later be tasked with resuming collection efforts because, for example, the debt owner has sold the account, detected a possible change in the consumer's financial situation, or, as part of their portfolio management strategy, makes periodic attempts at some recovery. Each time a new debt collector obtains responsibility for collecting the debt, the consumer likely will be subject to communications or communication attempts from the new debt collector. For the consumer, this may mean contact from a series of different debt collectors over a number of years for a single debt. During this time, the consumer may make payments to multiple debt collectors or may receive communication attempts from multiple debt collectors that may stop and restart at irregular intervals, until the debt is paid or settled in full or collection activity ceases for other reasons.

C. Consumer Protection Concerns

Each year, consumers submit tens of thousands of complaints about debt collection to Federal regulators; [18] many Start Printed Page 76737of those complaints relate to practices addressed in the final rule. Consumers also file thousands of private actions each year against debt collectors who allegedly have violated the FDCPA. Since the Bureau began operations in 2011, it has brought numerous debt collection cases against third-party debt collectors, alleging both FDCPA violations and unfair, deceptive, or abusive debt collection acts or practices in violation of the Dodd-Frank Act.[19] In many of these cases, the Bureau has obtained civil penalties, monetary compensation for consumers, and other relief. In its supervisory work, the Bureau similarly has identified many FDCPA violations during examinations of debt collectors. Over the past decade, the FTC and State regulators also have brought numerous additional actions against debt collectors for violating Federal and State debt collection and consumer protection laws.

D. FDCPA and Dodd-Frank Act Protections for Consumers

Federal and State governments historically have sought to protect consumers from harmful debt collection practices. From 1938 to 1977, the Federal government primarily protected consumers through FTC enforcement actions against debt collectors who engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of section 5 of the FTC Act.[20] When Congress enacted the FDCPA in 1977, it found that “[e]xisting laws and procedures for redressing . . . injuries [were] inadequate to protect consumers.” [21] Congress found that “[t]here [was] abundant evidence of the use of abusive, deceptive, and unfair debt collection practices by many debt collectors” and that these practices “contribute to the number of personal bankruptcies, to marital instability, to the loss of jobs, and to invasions of individual privacy.” [22]

The FDCPA was enacted, in part, “to eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors, [and] to insure that those debt collectors who refrain from using abusive debt collection practices are not competitively disadvantaged.” [23] Among other things, the FDCPA: (1) Prohibits debt collectors from engaging in harassment or abuse, making false or misleading representations, and engaging in unfair practices in debt collection; (2) restricts debt collectors' communications with consumers and others; and (3) requires debt collectors to provide consumers with disclosures concerning the debts they owe or allegedly owe.

The FDCPA, in general, applies to debt collectors as that term is defined under the statute. As discussed further in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(i), the FDCPA generally provides that a debt collector is any person: (1) Who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts (i.e., the “principal purpose” prong), or (2) who regularly collects, or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due to another (i.e., the “regularly collects” prong). FDCPA section 803(6) also sets forth several exclusions from the general definition.

Until the creation of the Bureau, no Federal agency was authorized to issue regulations to implement the substantive provisions of the FDCPA. Courts have issued opinions providing differing interpretations of various FDCPA provisions, and there is considerable uncertainty with respect to how the FDCPA applies to communication technologies that have developed since 1977. The Dodd-Frank Act amended the FDCPA to provide the Bureau with authority to “prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors.” [24]

III. The Rulemaking Process

A. The 2019 Proposal and 2020 Supplemental Proposal

On May 21, 2019, the Bureau published a proposed rule (the proposal) in the Federal Register to amend Regulation F, which implements the FDCPA.[25] The proposal provided a 90-day comment period that would have closed on August 19, 2019. To allow interested persons more time to consider and submit their comments, the Bureau issued an extension of the comment period until September 18, 2019.[26] In response to the proposal, the Bureau received more than 14,000 comments from consumers, consumer groups, members of Congress, other government agencies, creditors, debt collectors, industry trade associations, and others. As discussed below, the Bureau has considered these comments in adopting this final rule.[27]

In the proposal, the Bureau proposed to address concerns about debt collection communications and to clarify the application of the FDCPA to newer communication technologies, to clarify the steps a debt collector must take to provide required disclosures in writing and electronically, to clarify the information that a debt collector must provide to a consumer at the outset of debt collection, and to address other consumer protection concerns in the debt collection market. The proposal, among other things, proposed to set a bright-line rule for telephone call frequency and proposed a model form for providing the information required by FDCPA section 809(a). These interventions, along with the many others included in the proposal, generated a robust response. While some consumers and consumer advocate commenters supported various aspects of the proposal, in general they questioned whether the proposal provided adequate protection for consumers. Similarly, while some industry commenters supported various aspects of the proposal, in general they questioned whether the proposal provided sufficient clarity to allow for compliance or was properly tailored to the consumer protection problems and evidence at hand.Start Printed Page 76738

On February 21, 2020, the Bureau released a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking to amend Regulation F to require debt collectors to make certain disclosures when collecting time-barred debts (the February 2020 proposal).[28] Time-barred debts are debts for which the applicable statute of limitations has expired. The February 2020 proposal provided a 60-day comment period that would have closed on May 4, 2020. To allow interested persons more time to consider and submit their comments, the Bureau issued two extensions of the comment period, the first until June 5, 2020 and the second until August 4, 2020.[29] As noted above, the Bureau intends to issue a disclosure-focused final rule regarding the February 2020 proposal and certain provisions of the May 2019 proposal related to consumer disclosures and to the collection of time-barred debt.

B. Other Outreach [30]

In November 2013, the Bureau began the rulemaking process with the publication of an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) regarding debt collection.[31] As discussed in the proposal, the ANPRM sought information about a wide variety of both first- and third-party debt collection practices. The Bureau received more than 23,000 comments in response to the ANPRM, which the Bureau considered when developing the proposal.

The Bureau also conducted a variety of consumer testing and surveys, beginning in 2014 when the Bureau contracted with a third-party vendor, Fors Marsh Group (FMG), to develop and conduct qualitative consumer testing of two potential consumer-facing debt collection model disclosure forms: the validation notice and the statement of consumer rights. The Bureau also conducted a nationwide survey of consumers' experiences with debt collection and published a report of the findings in January 2017 (CFPB Debt Collection Consumer Survey or Consumer Survey).[32] In 2017, the Bureau contracted with ICF International, Inc. (ICF) to conduct a web survey of approximately 8,000 individuals possessing a broad range of demographic characteristics to obtain additional information about consumer comprehension and decision-making in response to sample debt collection disclosures relating to time-barred debt. A report summarizing the findings of this testing was published in connection with the February 2020 proposal.[33]

To better understand the operational costs of debt collection firms, including law firms, the Bureau also surveyed debt collection firms and vendors and published a report based on that study in July 2016 (CFPB Debt Collection Operations Study or Operations Study).[34] The Operations Study focused on understanding how debt collection firms obtain information about delinquent consumer accounts and attempt to collect on those accounts.

In August 2016, the Bureau convened a Small Business Review Panel (Small Business Review Panel or Panel) with the Chief Counsel for Advocacy of the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).[35] As part of this process, the Bureau prepared an outline of proposals under consideration and the alternatives considered (Small Business Review Panel Outline or Outline),[36] which the Bureau posted on its website for review by the small entity representatives participating in the Panel process and by the general public. The Panel gathered information from the small entity representatives and made findings and recommendations regarding the potential compliance costs and other impacts on those entities of the proposals under consideration. Those findings and recommendations are set forth in the Small Business Review Panel Report, which is part of the administrative record in this rulemaking and is available to the public.[37] The Bureau considered these findings and recommendations in preparing the proposals and this final rule.

The Bureau has also met on many occasions with various stakeholders, including consumer advocacy groups, debt collection trade associations, industry participants, academics with expertise in debt collection, Federal prudential regulators, and other Federal and State consumer protection regulators. The Bureau also received a number of comments specific to the debt collection rulemaking in response to its Request for Information Regarding the Bureau's Adopted Regulations and New Rulemaking Authorities [38] and its Request for Information Regarding the Bureau's Inherited Regulations and Inherited Rulemaking Authorities; [39] the Bureau considered these comments in developing the proposals and this final rule. In addition, the Bureau has engaged in general outreach, speaking at consumer advocacy group and industry events and visiting consumer organizations and industry stakeholders. The Bureau has provided other regulators with information about the proposals and this final rule, has sought their input, and has received feedback that has helped the Bureau to prepare this final rule.

Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the Bureau is required to conduct an assessment of significant rules within five years of the rule's effective date. The Bureau anticipates that this final rule may be significant and therefore may require an assessment within five years of the rule's effective date. The Bureau is preparing now for this possible assessment. Specifically, the Bureau is considering how best to obtain information now to serve as a baseline for evaluation of the costs, benefits, and other effects of the final Start Printed Page 76739rule. The Bureau expects to collect data and other information from consumers, debt collectors, and other stakeholders to understand whether the rule is achieving its goals under the FDCPA and the Dodd-Frank Act, and to help the Bureau measure the costs and benefits of the rule. Topics of data collection could include: Whether consumers find themselves less harassed by calls from debt collectors; whether debt collectors are better able to understand how to communicate with consumers using modern technology in a way that complies with the FDCPA; whether greater clarity about FDCPA requirements helps reduce litigation; and costs of the rule, both anticipated and unexpected, for consumers or for industry. The Bureau expects to conduct outreach in 2021 to explore how best to obtain such data, including potentially through surveying consumers or firms or by collecting operational data.

IV. Legal Authority

The Bureau is issuing this final rule primarily pursuant to its authority under the FDCPA and the Dodd-Frank Act. As amended by the Dodd-Frank Act, FDCPA section 814(d) provides that the Bureau “may prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors,” as defined in the FDCPA.[40] Section 1022(a) of the Dodd-Frank Act provides that “[t]he Bureau is authorized to exercise its authorities under Federal consumer financial law to administer, enforce, and otherwise implement the provisions of Federal consumer financial law.” [41] Section 1022(b)(1) of the Dodd-Frank Act provides that the Director may prescribe rules and issue orders and guidance, as may be necessary or appropriate to enable the Bureau to administer and carry out the purposes and objectives of the Federal consumer financial laws, and to prevent evasions thereof.[42] “Federal consumer financial law” includes title X of the Dodd-Frank Act and the FDCPA.[43] No provisions in this final rule are based on section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act.

These and other authorities are discussed in greater detail in parts IV.A through E below. Part IV.A discusses the Bureau's authority under sections 806 through 808 of the FDCPA. Parts IV.B through E discuss the Bureau's relevant authorities under the Dodd-Frank Act and the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN Act).[44]

A. FDCPA Sections 806 Through 808

As discussed in part V, the Bureau is finalizing several provisions, in whole or in part, pursuant to its authority to interpret FDCPA sections 806, 807, and 808, which set forth general prohibitions on, and requirements relating to, debt collectors' conduct and are accompanied by non-exhaustive lists of examples of unlawful conduct. This section provides an overview of how the Bureau interprets FDCPA sections 806 through 808.

FDCPA section 806 generally prohibits a debt collector from “engag[ing] in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt.” [45] Then, “[w]ithout limiting the general application of the foregoing,” it lists six examples of conduct that violate that section.[46] Similarly, FDCPA section 807 generally prohibits a debt collector from “us[ing] any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt.” [47] Then, “[w]ithout limiting the general application of the foregoing,” section 807 lists 16 examples of conduct that violate that section.[48] Finally, FDCPA section 808 prohibits a debt collector from “us[ing] unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt.” [49] Then, “[w]ithout limiting the general application of the foregoing,” FDCPA section 808 lists eight examples of conduct that violate that section.[50] The Bureau interprets FDCPA sections 806 through 808 in light of: (1) The FDCPA's language and purpose; (2) the general types of conduct prohibited by those sections and, where relevant, the specific examples enumerated in those sections; and (3) judicial decisions.[51]

Interpreting General Provisions in Light of Specific Prohibitions or Requirements

By their plain terms, FDCPA sections 806 through 808 make clear that their examples of prohibited conduct do not “limit[ ] the general application” of those sections' general prohibitions. The FDCPA's legislative history is consistent with this understanding,[52] as are opinions by courts that have addressed this issue.[53] Accordingly, the Bureau may interpret the general provisions of FDCPA sections 806 to 808 to prohibit conduct that the specific examples in FDCPA sections 806 through 808 do not address if the conduct violates the general prohibitions.

The Bureau uses the specific examples in FDCPA sections 806 through 808 to inform its interpretation of those sections' general prohibitions. Accordingly, the final rule interprets the general provisions of FDCPA sections 806 through 808 to prohibit or require certain conduct that is similar to the types of conduct prohibited or required by the specific examples. For example, the final rule interprets the general provisions in FDCPA sections 806 through 808 as protecting consumer privacy in debt collection in ways similar to the specific restrictions in: (1) FDCPA section 806(3), which prohibits, with certain exceptions, the publication of a list of consumers who allegedly refuse to pay debts; [54] (2) FDCPA section 808(7), which prohibits communicating with a consumer regarding a debt by postcard; and (3) FDCPA section 808(8), which prohibits the use of certain language and symbols on envelopes.[55] The interpretative approach of looking to specific provisions to inform general provisions is consistent with judicial decisions indicating that the general prohibitions in the FDCPA should be interpreted “in light of [their] associates.” [56] For example, courts have held that violating a consumer's privacy interest through public exposure of a debt violates the FDCPA, noting that Start Printed Page 76740violating a consumer's privacy is a type of conduct prohibited by several specific examples.[57] In this way, the Bureau uses the specific examples in FDCPA sections 806 through 808 to inform its understanding of the general provisions, consistent with the statute's use of the phrase “[w]ithout limiting the general application of the foregoing” to introduce the specific examples.[58]

Judicial Decisions

The Bureau interprets the general prohibitions in FDCPA sections 806 through 808 in light of the significant body of existing court decisions interpreting those provisions, which provide instructive examples of collection practices that are not addressed by the specific prohibitions in those sections but that nonetheless run afoul of the FDCPA's general prohibitions in sections 806 through 808.[59] For example, courts have held that a debt collector could violate FDCPA section 808 by using coercive tactics such as citing speculative legal consequences to pressure the consumer to engage with the debt collector.[60] Additionally, courts have held that a debt collector could violate FDCPA sections 806 through 808 by taking certain actions to collect a debt that a consumer does not actually owe or that is not actually delinquent.[61] Similarly, a debt collector could violate FDCPA section 807 by, for example, giving “a false impression of the character of the debt,” [62] such as by failing to disclose that an amount collected includes fees.[63]

Several courts have applied an objective standard of an “unsophisticated” or “least sophisticated” consumer to FDCPA sections 807 [64] and 808 [65] and an objective, vulnerable consumer standard to FDCPA section 806.[66] In determining whether particular acts violate FDCPA sections 806 through 808, the Bureau interprets those sections to incorporate “an objective standard” that is designed to protect consumers who are “of below-average sophistication or intelligence” or who are “especially vulnerable to fraudulent schemes.” [67]

Courts have reasoned, and the Bureau agrees, that “[w]hether a consumer is more or less likely to be harassed, oppressed, or abused by certain debt collection practices does not relate solely to the consumer's relative sophistication” and may be affected by other circumstances, such as the consumer's financial and legal resources.[68] Courts have further reasoned that section 807's prohibition on false, deceptive, or misleading representations incorporates an objective, “unsophisticated” consumer standard.[69] This standard “protects the consumer who is uninformed, naive, or trusting, yet it admits an objective element of reasonableness.” [70] The Bureau agrees with the reasoning of courts that have applied this standard or a “least sophisticated consumer” standard.[71] The Bureau uses the term unsophisticated consumer to describe the standard it applies when assessing the effect of conduct on consumers.

FDCPA's Purposes

FDCPA section 802 establishes that the purpose of the statute is to eliminate abusive debt collection practices by debt collectors, to ensure that debt collectors who refrain from using abusive debt collection practices are not competitively disadvantaged, and to promote consistent State action to protect consumers against debt collection abuses.[72] In particular, FDCPA section 802 delineates certain specific harms that the general and specific prohibitions in sections 806 Start Printed Page 76741through 808 were designed to alleviate. Section 802 states: “[T]he use of abusive, deceptive, and unfair debt collection practices by many debt collectors . . . contribute[s] to the number of personal bankruptcies, to marital instability, to the loss of jobs, and to invasions of individual privacy.” [73]

B. Dodd-Frank Act Section 1031

The Bureau proposed to rely on its Dodd-Frank Act section 1031 authority (relating to unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices in connection with consumer financial products or services) to support two interventions in the proposal. As discussed in more detail in the section-by-section analysis of §§ 1006.14 and 1006.30, the Bureau is not finalizing any provisions of the rule pursuant to its authority under Dodd-Frank Act section 1031.

C. Dodd-Frank Act Section 1032

Dodd-Frank Act section 1032(a) provides that the Bureau may prescribe rules to ensure that the features of any consumer financial product or service, “both initially and over the term of the product or service,” are “fully, accurately, and effectively disclosed to consumers in a manner that permits consumers to understand the costs, benefits, and risks associated with the product or service, in light of the facts and circumstances.” [74] Under Dodd-Frank Act section 1032(a), the Bureau is empowered to prescribe rules regarding the disclosure of the “features” of consumer financial products and services generally. Accordingly, the Bureau may prescribe rules containing disclosure requirements even if other Federal consumer financial laws do not specifically require disclosure of such features. Dodd-Frank Act section 1032(c) provides that, in prescribing rules pursuant to Dodd-Frank Act section 1032, the Bureau “shall consider available evidence about consumer awareness, understanding of, and responses to disclosures or communications about the risks, costs, and benefits of consumer financial products or services.” [75] The Bureau is finalizing §§ 1006.6(e) and 1006.38 based in part on its authority under Dodd-Frank Act section 1032.

D. Other Authorities Under the Dodd-Frank Act

Section 1022(b)(1) of the Dodd-Frank Act provides that the Bureau's Director “may prescribe rules and issue orders and guidance, as may be necessary or appropriate to enable the Bureau to administer and carry out the purposes and objectives of the Federal consumer financial laws, and to prevent evasions thereof.” [76] “Federal consumer financial laws” include the FDCPA and title X of the Dodd-Frank Act.[77] Section 1022(b)(2) of the Dodd-Frank Act prescribes certain standards for rulemaking that the Bureau must follow in exercising its authority under Dodd-Frank Act section 1022(b)(1).[78] See part VII for a discussion of the Bureau's standards for rulemaking under Dodd-Frank Act section 1022(b)(2).

Dodd-Frank Act section 1024(b)(7)(A) authorizes the Bureau to prescribe rules to facilitate supervision of persons identified as larger participants of a market for a consumer financial product or service as defined by rule in accordance with section 1024(a)(1)(B) of the Dodd-Frank Act. Dodd-Frank Act section 1024(b)(7)(B) authorizes the Bureau to require a person described in Dodd-Frank Act section 1024(a)(1) to retain records for the purpose of facilitating supervision of such persons and assessing and detecting risks to consumers. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.100 pursuant to the Bureau's authorities under Dodd-Frank Act sections 1022 and 1024.

E. The E-SIGN Act

The E-SIGN Act provides standards for determining if delivery of a disclosure by electronic record satisfies a requirement in a statute, regulation, or other rule of law that the disclosure be provided or made available in writing to a consumer. E-SIGN Act section 104(b)(1) permits the Bureau to interpret the E-SIGN Act through the issuance of regulations. As discussed in part V, the Bureau is finalizing comments 6(c)(1)-1 and -2 (providing an interpretation of the E-SIGN Act as applied to a debt collector responding to a consumer's notification that the consumer refuses to pay the debt or wants the debt collector to cease communication) and comments 38-1 and -2 (providing an interpretation of the E-SIGN Act as applied to a debt collector responding to a consumer dispute or request for original-creditor information) pursuant to E-SIGN Act section 104(b)(1).

V. Section-by-Section Analysis

Subpart A—In General

Section 1006.1 Authority, Purpose, and Coverage

1(a) Authority

Existing § 1006.1(a) states that the purpose of part 1006, known as Regulation F, is to establish procedures and criteria for any State to request that the Bureau exempt debt collection practices within that State from the requirements of the FDCPA as provided in FDCPA section 817. Consistent with the Bureau's proposal to revise part 1006 to regulate the debt collection activities of FDCPA debt collectors, the Bureau proposed to revise existing § 1006.1(a) to set forth the Bureau's authority to issue such rules.[79] Specifically, proposed § 1006.1(a) stated that part 1006 is known as Regulation F and is issued by the Bureau pursuant to sections 814(d) and 817 of the FDCPA,[80] title X of the Dodd-Frank Act,[81] and section 104(b)(1) and (d)(1) of the E-SIGN Act.[82] The Bureau proposed to move the remainder of existing § 1006.1(a), regarding State law exemptions from the FDCPA, to paragraph I(a) of appendix A of the regulation.

The Bureau did not receive comments on proposed § 1006.1(a). Pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d), the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.1(a) largely as proposed. However, the Bureau is removing section 104(d)(1) of the E-SIGN Act from the list of authorizing statutory provisions because, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.42, the Bureau is not relying on that provision as authority for the final rule.

1(b) Purpose

Existing § 1006.1(b) defines terms relevant to the procedures and criteria for States to apply to the Bureau for an exemption as provided in FDCPA section 817. Consistent with the Bureau's proposal to revise part 1006 to regulate the debt collection activities of FDCPA debt collectors, the Bureau proposed to revise § 1006.1(b) to identify the purposes of part 1006 and proposed to move the definitions in existing § 1006.1(b) to paragraph 1(b) of appendix A of the regulation.[83] The Bureau did not receive comment on proposed § 1006.1(b) and is finalizing it Start Printed Page 76742as proposed pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d).

1(c) Coverage

Section 814(d) of the FDCPA gives the Bureau authority to prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors, but it prohibits the Bureau from applying those rules to motor vehicle dealers as described in section 1029(a) of the Dodd-Frank Act. Consistent with that authority, the Bureau proposed to add § 1006.1(c) to describe the applicability of proposed part 1006.[84] Proposed § 1006.1(c)(1) stated that, with the exception of proposed § 1006.108 and appendix A, proposed part 1006 would apply to debt collectors as defined in proposed § 1006.2(i), i.e., FDCPA debt collectors, but not to motor vehicle dealers as described in section 1029(a) of the Dodd-Frank Act.[85] Proposed § 1006.1(c)(2) stated that certain provisions that were proposed only under sections 1031 or 1032 of the Dodd-Frank Act,[86] specifically proposed §§ 1006.14(b)(1)(ii), 1006.34(c)(2)(iv) and (3)(iv), and 1006.30(b)(1)(ii), applied to FDCPA debt collectors only to the extent that such debt collectors were collecting a debt related to an extension of consumer credit or another consumer financial product or service, as defined in the Dodd-Frank Act.[87] Proposed § 1006.1(c)(2) did not propose to expand coverage to any party not covered by the FDCPA.

The Bureau received a number of comments on the coverage of the proposal. Some commenters requested that the Bureau exempt certain entities (e.g., servicers and attorneys) from coverage. Such comments are discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(i), which is the provision that implements FDCPA section 803(6), i.e., the definition of debt collector.

A number of comments discussed coverage of non-FDCPA debt collectors, i.e., parties who collect debts but who do not meet the FDCPA's definition of debt collector—a group that typically includes creditors. For ease of reference throughout this section-by-section analysis, the Bureau refers to such parties as first-party debt collectors.

A handful of consumer advocates and a group of State Attorneys General advocated that the Bureau expand the rule to apply to first-party debt collectors.

Nearly all of the comments regarding first-party debt collector coverage were from industry stakeholders such as credit unions, banks, and installment lenders, and their trade associations. These commenters generally expressed concern that the rule would be applied to first-party debt collectors, with some such commenters expressing particular concern that the Bureau's reliance on its authority under Dodd-Frank Act section 1031 for certain proposed provisions would be used by the Bureau or others to expand the rule to apply to such parties. Dodd-Frank Act section 1031 grants the Bureau authority to write regulations applicable to covered persons and service providers to identify and prevent unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices in connection with a transaction with a consumer for, or the offering of, a consumer financial product or service.[88] Because first-party debt collectors are likely covered persons or service providers under Dodd-Frank Act section 1031, the commenters expressed concern that the Bureau's reliance on that provision effectively would expand the scope of the rule to cover them, even if they were not FDCPA debt collectors. The SBA also commented that the Bureau's use of its section 1031 Dodd-Frank Act authority would create uncertainty and legal risk for first-party debt collectors that were not in the SBREFA process or any subsequent process. The commenters asked the Bureau to clarify the rule's coverage, either by issuing a final rule without relying on Dodd-Frank Act section 1031 or by clearly stating that the final rule, including any provisions that rely on Dodd-Frank Act section 1031, does not apply to first-party debt collectors.

The Bureau declines to expand the rule to apply to first-party debt collectors who are not FDCPA debt collectors, as requested by some commenters. The proposal was intended to implement provisions of the FDCPA, and the Bureau did not solicit feedback on whether or how such provisions should apply to first-party debt collectors. This rule also is not intended to address whether activities performed by entities that are not subject to the FDCPA may violate other laws, including the prohibitions against unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices in Dodd-Frank Act section 1031.

For the same reasons, the Bureau also declines to clarify whether any particular actions taken by a first-party debt collector who is not an FDCPA debt collector would constitute an unfair, deceptive, or abusive practice under Dodd-Frank Act section 1031. Indeed, for the reasons discussed in the section-by-section analysis of §§ 1006.14 and 1006.30, the Bureau is not finalizing any provisions of the rule pursuant to its authority under Dodd-Frank Act section 1031.

For these reasons, and because the Bureau plans to finalize proposed § 1006.34(c)(2)(iv) and (3)(iv) as part of the Bureau's disclosure-focused final rule,[89] the Bureau is adopting § 1006.1(c)(1) as proposed and is reserving § 1006.1(c)(2). The Bureau is adopting § 1006.1(c) pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors.

Section 1006.2 Definitions

Existing § 1006.2 describes how a State may apply for an exemption from the FDCPA as provided in FDCPA section 817.[90] Consistent with the Bureau's proposal to revise part 1006 to regulate the debt collection activities of FDCPA debt collectors, the Bureau proposed to repurpose existing § 1006.2 to implement and interpret FDCPA section 803,[91] which defines terms used throughout the statute, and to define additional terms that would be used in the regulation.[92] The Bureau proposed to move existing § 1006.2 to paragraph II of appendix A of the regulation.

The Bureau received no substantive comments on proposed § 1006.2(a) (defining the term Act or FDCPA) or on proposed § 1006.2(c), (g), or (l) (implementing the FDCPA section 803 definitions of Bureau, creditor, and State, respectively). The Bureau therefore is adopting those provisions as proposed and is not discussing them further in the section-by-section analysis below. The Bureau received a number of comments on the other definitions in proposed § 1006.2 and is finalizing them as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(b), (d) through (f), and (h) through (k) below. As proposed, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2 to implement and interpret FDCPA section 803, pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d).Start Printed Page 76743

2(b) Attempt To Communicate

The Bureau proposed in § 1006.2(b) to define an attempt to communicate as any act to initiate a communication or other contact with any person through any medium, including by soliciting a response from such person.[93] Proposed § 1006.2(b) further stated that an attempt to communicate includes providing a limited-content message, as defined in § 1006.2(j). For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(b) with a narrower definition of attempt to communicate and is adopting new commentary to clarify the definition's scope.

The Bureau received a number of comments on proposed § 1006.2(b)'s definition of attempt to communicate. Industry commenters generally requested additional clarity on, or exclusions for, certain messages or activity. Specifically, these commenters asked about the following: (1) Telephone calls that do not result in a voicemail message or conversation with a consumer for various reasons (such as a full voicemail inbox, a voicemail message system that records only a partial message from the debt collector, a telephone number that has been disconnected, or a consumer who disconnects the call after answering); (2) activity directed to groups of consumers or the general public, such as marketing or advertising; (3) personal communications, such as ordering lunch; (4) legally required communications; (5) visits by a consumer to a debt collector's website or online portal; and (6) administrative communications, such as any communications with financial institutions necessary to facilitate a consumer's payment arrangement. These commenters believed that, without additional clarity or exclusions for such situations, the definition of attempt to communicate would be overbroad.

As an initial matter, the Bureau notes that the definition of attempt to communicate, by itself, imposes no direct obligations on debt collectors. Other sections of the final rule, including §§ 1006.6(b) and (c) and 1006.14(h), however, restrict or prohibit attempts to communicate in certain circumstances. While commenters generally did not express concern about the proposed definition of attempt to communicate as it relates to those provisions, the Bureau interprets commenters' feedback in light of the conduct those provisions were designed to address.

The Bureau finds that certain messages or activity discussed by commenters, such as telephone calls that do not result in a voicemail message or conversation with a consumer, should be considered attempts to communicate. These messages or activity may raise consumer protection concerns that provisions of the final rule regulating attempts to communicate are designed to address. For example, a debt collector might call a consumer to discuss the consumer's debt at a time that the consumer has designated as inconvenient but fail to reach the consumer because the consumer declines to answer the telephone. Final § 1006.6(b)(1) prohibits a debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at a time or place that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer. In this example, the debt collector likely would have “act[ed] to initiate a communication”—and thus attempted to communicate—with the consumer at an inconvenient time in violation of § 1006.6(b)(1)(i).[94] As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.6(b), a consumer who hears a telephone ringing at an inconvenient time or place but who does not answer it may experience the natural consequence of harassment from the telephone ringing in much the same way as a consumer who answers and speaks to the debt collector on the telephone. Therefore, such activity remains covered under final § 1006.2(b) so that final §§ 1006.6(b) and (c) and 1006.14(h) have their intended effect.

At the same time, the Bureau finds that other messages or activity discussed by commenters, such as general marketing and advertising directed to groups of consumers or the general public, or personal communications, should not be considered attempts to communicate. These messages or activity may not raise the same consumer protection concerns that motivated other provisions of the final rule regulating attempts to communicate. For example, a debt collector might place a general advertisement on a website, and a consumer might then view that advertisement at a time that the consumer has designated as inconvenient. As noted above, final § 1006.6(b)(1) prohibits a debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at a time or place that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer. In this example, the debt collector likely would have “act[ed] to initiate a . . . contact”—and thus attempted to communicate under proposed § 1006.2(b)—with the consumer at an inconvenient time in violation of § 1006.6(b)(1)(i). But consumers likely consider a general online advertisement about a debt collector's business, which contains no reference to the consumer's specific debt, to be less intrusive, and therefore less inconvenient than, for example, a telephone call placed to them by a debt collector. Consumers also are more likely to be able to ignore a general advertisement. Moreover, a debt collector likely cannot control when a consumer visits a website displaying the debt collector's advertisement or reconcile all the communications preferences of all the consumers who might see the advertisement. To tailor the covered activity, the Bureau is finalizing the definition of attempt to communicate in § 1006.2(b) with the phrase or other contact “about a debt.” [95]

The Bureau determines that the other categories of messages or activity raised by industry commenters are sufficiently addressed by other provisions of this final rule and therefore do not require a revision to the definition of attempt to communicate. As to consumers' visits to a debt collector's website or online portal, comment 6(b)(1)-2.iii illustrates that, notwithstanding an inconvenient time designation by a consumer, a debt collector may provide information to a consumer who visits or navigates the debt collector's website or online portal. As to legally required communications, § 1006.14(h)(2)(iii) provides that, if otherwise required by applicable law, a debt collector may communicate or attempt to communicate with a person in connection with the collection of any debt through a medium of communication that the person has requested the debt collector not use to communicate with the person. And finally, as to administrative communications, § 1006.6(d)(2)(ii) allows debt collectors to communicate with third parties with the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector, which should permit communications necessary to facilitate a consumer's payment plan. The relevant Start Printed Page 76744section-by-section analyses provide more information about the operation of these provisions.[96]

Finally, a group of consumer advocates noted that, although they generally opposed the limited-content message in proposed § 1006.2(j), they supported the fact that the proposal would impose some limitations on attempts to communicate. However, these commenters stated that certain protections did not apply to attempts to communicate, such as the prohibition on third-party disclosures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(1) and the prohibition on communicating by postcard in proposed § 1006.22(f)(1). The Bureau has evaluated the scope of this final rule and determines that each substantive provision addresses a range of conduct appropriate to achieve the goals of that section. The section-by-section analysis throughout part V provides additional explanation for the final rule's substantive provisions.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(b) to provide that an attempt to communicate means any act to initiate a communication or other contact about a debt with any person through any medium, including by soliciting a response from such person.

Comment 2(b)-1 clarifies that an act to initiate a communication or other contact about a debt with a person is an attempt to communicate regardless of whether the attempt, if successful, would be a communication that conveys information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person, and includes two illustrative examples.

2(d) Communicate or Communication

FDCPA section 803(2) defines the term communication to mean the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.[97] The Bureau proposed § 1006.2(d) to restate the statutory definition of communication, with only minor changes for clarity.[98] Proposed § 1006.2(d) further stated that a debt collector does not convey information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person—and therefore does not communicate with any person—if the debt collector provides only a limited-content message, as defined in § 1006.2(j). For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(d) largely as proposed, with minor revisions for clarity.

The Bureau received several comments on proposed § 1006.2(d)'s definition of communicate or communication. As with comments on the proposed definition of attempt to communicate discussed above, industry commenters generally requested the Bureau provide clarity on, or exclusions for, certain types of activity. These commenters asked about the following: (1) Marketing, advertising, or other promotional materials; (2) automated replies acknowledging a consumer's message; (3) visits by a consumer to a debt collector's website or online portal; (4) legally required communications; and (5) caller ID information that discloses the debt collector's business name.

The Bureau agrees that it would be useful to clarify that certain types of advertising and marketing are not communications under § 1006.2(d). For example, a debt collector might develop general advertising or marketing materials to build the debt collector's brand, promote the debt collector's services, or establish the debt collector's legitimacy. If such activity includes no information about a specific debt, it likely would not meet the definition of a communication.

The Bureau determines that other provisions in this final rule sufficiently address the other categories of messages or activity raised by industry commenters. Therefore, these messages or activity do not require clarification in the definition of communication. First, as to automated replies, comment 6(b)(1)-2.iv illustrates that a debt collector may send an automated reply generated in response to a message sent by a consumer at a time that the consumer previously had designated as inconvenient. Second, comment 6(b)(1)-2.iii illustrates that, notwithstanding an inconvenient time designation by a consumer, a debt collector may provide information to a consumer who visits or navigates the debt collector's website or online portal. Third, § 1006.14(h)(2)(iii) provides that, if otherwise required by applicable law, a debt collector may communicate with a person in connection with the collection of any debt through a medium of communication that the person has requested the debt collector not use to communicate with the person. And, finally, § 1006.2(j) defines a type of message—the limited-content message—that includes a debt collector's business name but is not a communication. Although the final rule does not explicitly address caller ID, a debt collector's business name that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business is part of the required content of a limited-content message under the final rule, so caller ID information that discloses that content alone would not transform what is otherwise an attempt to communicate into a communication. The relevant section-by-section analyses provide more information about the operation of these provisions.[99]

Finally, consumer advocates objected to the proposed clarification that a limited-content message is not a communication. The Bureau finds that the limited-content message is appropriately considered an attempt to communicate rather than a communication, as discussed below in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.2(j).

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(d) and comment 2(d)-1 largely as proposed.[100] The Bureau is also adopting new comment 2(d)-2 to clarify the status of limited-content messages, as defined in § 1006.2(j), and marketing or advertising messages that do not contain information about a specific debt.

2(e) Consumer

FDCPA section 803(3) defines a consumer as any natural person obligated or allegedly obligated to pay any debt.[101] The Bureau proposed § 1006.2(e) to implement this definition and to interpret it to include a deceased natural person who is obligated or allegedly obligated to pay a debt.[102] Proposed § 1006.2(e) also provided that, for purposes of §§ 1006.6 and 1006.14(h), the term consumer included the persons described in the special definition of consumer in § 1006.6(a).

The Bureau received a number of comments regarding its proposal to interpret the term consumer to include deceased natural persons. The Bureau proposed that interpretation, in large part, to facilitate the delivery of validation notices under proposed § 1006.34 when the consumer obligated, or allegedly obligated, on the debt has died. The Bureau plans to address comments received regarding that interpretation, and to determine whether to finalize that interpretation, Start Printed Page 76745as part of the Bureau's disclosure-focused final rule.[103]

The Bureau's proposed § 1006.2(e) cross-referenced proposed § 1006.14(h). The Bureau proposed that the prohibition on communication media under § 1006.14(h) apply to “a consumer” as defined under § 1006.6(a) but, as finalized, § 1006.14(h) applies to “a person.” [104] It therefore is not necessary for § 1006.2(e) to include the proposed cross-reference § 1006.14(h).

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(e) to provide that the term consumer means any natural person obligated or allegedly obligated to pay any debt. Final § 1006.2(e) further provides that, for purposes of § 1006.6, the term consumer includes the persons described in § 1006.6(a). It also provides that the Bureau may further define the term by regulation to clarify its application when the consumer is deceased.

2(f) Consumer Financial Product or Service Debt

The Bureau proposed § 1006.2(f) to define consumer financial product or service debt to mean any debt related to any consumer financial product or service, as consumer financial product or service is defined in section 1002(5) of the Dodd-Frank Act.[105]

The Bureau is not finalizing § 1006.2(f) as proposed. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.1(c), the Bureau proposed certain provisions pursuant to its authority under Dodd-Frank Act sections 1031 and 1032, and those provisions would have applied to a debt collector only if the debt collector was collecting a debt related to a consumer financial product or service, as that term is defined in section 1002(5) of the Dodd-Frank Act.[106] However, as discussed in more detail in the section-by-section analyses of §§ 1006.14, 1006.30 and 1006.34, the Bureau is not finalizing those provisions in this rulemaking. As a result, there is no need to define consumer financial product or service debt in this rulemaking.

2(h) Debt

FDCPA section 803(5) defines the term debt for purposes of the FDCPA.[107] Proposed § 1006.2(h) would have implemented FDCPA section 803(5) and generally restated the statute by defining debt as any obligation or alleged obligation of a consumer to pay money arising out of a transaction in which the money, property, insurance, or services that are the subject of the transaction are primarily for personal, family, or household purposes, whether or not the obligation has been reduced to judgment. Proposed § 1006.2(h) also would have clarified that, for purposes of § 1006.2(f), the term debt means debt as that term is used in the Dodd-Frank Act.[108]

Several consumer advocates and an industry trade group stated that the proposal to define debt for purposes of § 1006.2(f) as that term is used in the Dodd-Frank Act was confusing and should be removed or revised. In addition, one industry trade group commenter recommended that the Bureau clarify that debt subject to the FDCPA is limited to debt incurred only by a natural person.

The Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(h) generally as proposed. However, the Bureau is not finalizing proposed § 1006.2(h)'s cross-reference to § 1006.2(f) because, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(f), the Bureau is not finalizing § 1006.2(f). This change should address commenters' concerns about the regulation including different definitions of the term debt.

The final rule also adds new comment 2(h)-1 to clarify, as requested, that debt subject to the FDCPA is limited to debt incurred by a natural person. The comment explains that § 1006.2(h) defines debt to mean, in part, an obligation of a consumer, and that § 1006.2(e), in turn, defines a consumer as a natural person obligated or allegedly obligated to pay any debt. Thus, only natural persons can incur the debts defined in § 1006.2(h).

2(i) Debt Collector

FDCPA section 803(6) defines the term debt collector for purposes of the FDCPA.[109] The introductory language of FDCPA section 803(6) generally provides that a debt collector is any person: (1) Who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts (i.e., the “principal purpose” prong), or (2) who regularly collects, or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due to another (i.e., the “regularly collects” prong). FDCPA section 803(6) also sets forth several exclusions from the general definition.

Proposed § 1006.2(i) generally restated FDCPA section 803(6)'s definition of debt collector, with only minor wording and organizational changes for clarity [110] and to specify that the term excludes private entities that operate certain bad check enforcement programs that comply with FDCPA section 818.[111] The preamble to the proposal discussed the Supreme Court's holding in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc.[112] and, consistent with that decision, noted that a debt buyer collecting debts that it purchased and owned could be considered a debt collector for purposes of the rule if the debt buyer either met the “principal purpose” prong of the definition or regularly collected or attempted to collect debts owned by others, in addition to collecting debts that it purchased and owned.[113]

The Bureau received a number of comments on the proposed definition of debt collector. The Bureau received comments from both consumer advocate and industry commenters discussing the extent to which debt buyers would be considered debt collectors under Regulation F and asking the Bureau to provide additional explanation or include the proposed preamble Start Printed Page 76746discussion of the Henson decision in commentary to the final rule. Several industry commenters also requested carve outs for certain entities, including mortgage servicers and, citing Dodd-Frank Act section 1027(e)(1),[114] licensed attorneys engaged in litigation activities or the practice of law.

The Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(i) as proposed, except the final rule corrects an inaccurate cross-reference that had been included in the proposal and includes new comment 2(i)-1 to respond to requests to clarify the scope of the term debt collector as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Henson. Specifically, new comment 2(i)-1 provides that a person who collects or attempts to collect defaulted debts that the person has purchased, but who does not collect or attempt to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due, or asserted to be owed or due, to another, and who does not have a business the principal purpose of which is the collection of debts, is not a debt collector as defined in § 1006.2(i).

The Bureau declines to exclude licensed attorneys or mortgage servicers from the definition of debt collector. The FDCPA's definition of debt collector does not exempt licensed attorneys or mortgage servicers who otherwise meet the definition of debt collector. Interpreting the definition to exclude these or other entities would constitute a significant interpretation of the FDCPA on which the public did not have the opportunity to comment. These suggestions thus are outside the scope of the proposal. In addition, the FDCPA applies to attorneys who regularly engage in debt collection activity, even when that activity consists of litigation,[115] and the Bureau disagrees that it does not have authority to engage in rulemaking or other activities covering attorneys engaged in litigation or the practice of law. Dodd-Frank Act section 1027(e)(1) does not restrict the Bureau's rulemaking authority, and the Bureau considered and rejected arguments that Dodd-Frank Act section 1027(e)(1) constrains the Bureau's supervisory or enforcement authority over larger participant debt collectors in its 2012 final rule defining larger participants of the consumer debt collection market.[116]

2(j) Limited-Content Message

FDCPA section 803(2) defines the term communication to mean the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium.[117] Proposed § 1006.2(d) would have implemented and interpreted that definition, including by specifying that a debt collector does not engage in an FDCPA communication if the debt collector provides only a limited-content message.[118] The Bureau proposed in § 1006.2(j) to further interpret FDCPA section 803(2) by defining a type of message, the “limited-content message,” that would not convey information about a debt directly or indirectly to any person. Therefore, as proposed, a debt collector could provide such a message for a consumer without communicating with any person for the purposes of the FDCPA or Regulation F. Proposed § 1006.2(j)(1) would have required that limited-content messages include certain content, and proposed § 1006.2(j)(2) would have permitted certain additional content.[119]

Proposed comment 2(j)-1 explained that any message that included content other than the required or optional content specified in § 1006.2(j)(1) and (2) would not be a limited-content message. The proposed comment further explained that, if a message included any other content and such other content directly or indirectly conveyed any information about a debt, the message would be a communication, as defined in proposed § 1006.2(d). Proposed comment 2(j)-2 provided examples of limited-content messages, proposed comment 2(j)-3 illustrated ways in which a debt collector could transmit a limited-content message to a consumer (e.g., by voicemail, text message, or with a third party, but not by email), and proposed comment 2(j)-4 provided that a debt collector who placed a telephone call and left only a limited-content message would not have, with respect to that telephone call, violated FDCPA section 806(6)'s prohibition on the placement of telephone calls without meaningful disclosure of the caller's identity.

The Bureau received a large number of comments from industry and trade association commenters, consumer advocates, government commenters, and others on the proposal to define a limited-content message. After considering that feedback, the Bureau is finalizing the proposed definition with several modifications as discussed below.

Limited-Content Message Concept

Many commenters addressed the overall concept of a limited-content message and general aspects of the proposed definition.[120] Federal government agency staff noted the uncertainty surrounding voicemail messages and supported efforts to clarify debt collectors' obligations. Industry commenters also supported the limited-content message in principle and explained that such a provision would have several benefits. Many of these commenters argued that a limited-content message would facilitate communication between consumers and debt collectors, which would benefit consumers by reducing the frequency of debt collection calls, lowering the interest and fees accrued by outstanding debts, reducing the number of lawsuits filed against consumers, and giving consumers more control over when they listen to debt collection messages and respond to debt collectors. Several of these commenters stated that consumers believe that calls from unknown telephone numbers are scams, especially if such callers fail to leave voicemail messages. One industry commenter observed that consumers expected callers to leave voicemail messages, while another commenter reported that, without voicemail messages, consumers may think debt collectors are unresponsive to consumers' efforts to communicate.

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Other industry commenters argued that a limited-content message would reduce unjustified lawsuits against debt collectors. One trade group commenter stated that legal uncertainty and fear of liability cause many debt collectors to avoid leaving messages entirely. Another trade group commenter asserted that debt collectors have tried leaving various messages but are still threatened by lawsuits. Finally, a trade group commenter reported that most of its members leave a message found not to be a communication by one Federal district court in Zortman v. J.C. Christensen & Assocs., Inc.[121]

Many individual consumers and consumer advocates opposed any limited-content message. Most of these commenters asserted that such a message was an impermissible exemption from the FDCPA sections defining and regulating communications. Other commenters argued that the proposal would violate consumer privacy by permitting third parties to hear or see limited-content messages. And other commenters appeared to assert, incorrectly, that none of the proposal's provisions regulating attempts to communicate or communications would apply to limited-content messages.

As explained in the proposal, uncertainty about what constitutes a communication under FDCPA section 803(2) has led to questions about how debt collectors can leave voicemails or other messages for consumers while complying with certain FDCPA provisions.[122] If a voicemail or other message is a communication with a consumer, FDCPA section 807(11) requires that the debt collector identify itself as a debt collector or inform the consumer that the debt collector is attempting to collect a debt and that any information obtained will be used for that purpose.[123] A debt collector who leaves a message with such disclosures, however, risks violating FDCPA section 805(b)'s prohibition against revealing debts to third parties if the disclosures are seen or heard by a third party.[124] Thus, certain messages may put a debt collector who wants to avoid FDCPA liability in the position of having to disclose the debt collector's identity and purpose, while avoiding disclosure of the debt to third parties.

As explained in the proposal, many debt collectors state that they err on the side of caution and make repeated telephone calls instead of leaving messages for a consumer or sending text messages.[125] Such repeated telephone calls may frustrate many consumers. Indeed, consumers often complain to the Bureau about the number of collection calls they receive and, to a lesser degree, about debt collectors' reluctance to leave voicemails.[126] And, as noted in the proposal, the FTC and the U.S. Government Accountability Office also have previously noted the need to clarify the law regarding debt collectors' ability to leave voicemails for consumers.[127]

The Bureau determines that defining the content of a message that debt collectors may leave without engaging in an FDCPA communication will decrease uncertainty and benefit both debt collectors and consumers by reducing the need for debt collectors to rely on repeated telephone calls without leaving messages to establish contact with consumers. This, in turn, may benefit consumers by increasing their ability to learn whether they are being asked to pay the right debt, in the right amount. And debt collectors will benefit from the ability to leave certain messages without risking exposure to liability for violating the FDCPA while consumers will benefit from receiving messages that do not disclose information about a debt. Therefore, the Bureau is finalizing a definition of the limited-content message. At the same time, having considered commenters' concerns, the Bureau is finalizing certain changes to the definition, as discussed below.

Permissible Communication Media

Proposed § 1006.2(j) would have enabled a debt collector to transmit a limited-content message by voicemail, by text message, or orally.[128] However, the proposal would not have allowed a debt collector to transmit a limited-content message by email because emails typically require additional information (e.g., a sender's email address) that may in some circumstances convey information about a debt, and consumers may be unlikely to read or respond to an email containing solely the information included in a limited-content message (e.g., consumers may disregard such an email as spam or a security risk).

The Bureau received many comments on the communication media through which debt collectors could send limited-content messages. The majority of these comments concerned email. Most industry commenters recommended allowing limited-content messages by email.[129] These commenters made various arguments in support of their recommendation. Some commenters asserted that email was more private than other communication media because email accounts are password-protected, unique to a consumer, and generally not reassigned to other consumers. One commenter believed that the sender's email address revealed no more information than would be disclosed by caller ID, while other commenters stated that debt collectors could configure their email services to omit information from the sender's email address and signature line that might result in a prohibited third-party disclosure. Other commenters claimed that limited-content email messages would benefit consumers because consumers might prefer communicating by email, could research the debt collector before responding, and could decide when and how to respond. One commenter stated that limited-content email messages could help compensate for what the commenter viewed as barriers to electronic communication under proposed § 1006.6(d)(3). Another commenter argued that, although the proposed limited-content message would closely resemble a spam or scam message if delivered by email, future technology might enable consumers to verify the legitimacy of email messages, and for this reason, the Bureau should allow limited-content email messages.

Relatedly, a State government commenter asserted that email and text messages were the only appropriate communication media for leaving limited-content messages because of the relatively low risk of third-party disclosure, but only after a consumer had opted in to receiving electronic communications from a debt collector.

A few consumer advocates stated that limited-content messages should not be permitted to be sent by email, with one suggesting that the Bureau incorporate this restriction into regulation text or commentary. Another stated that limited-content email messages may be Start Printed Page 76748inappropriate because they include other content that might convey information about a debt, but argued that the same was true of telephone numbers, which a third party could look up using online search engines.

Several commenters also addressed limited-content text messages. Industry commenters generally supported allowing limited-content text messages. Some of these commenters stated that many consumers prefer to use written communication media, such as text messages, that give them time to compose their thoughts, and these commenters explained that the opt-out notice under proposed § 1006.6(e) would effectively prevent debt collectors from sending too many limited-content text messages. One industry commenter recommended also allowing limited-content messages by mobile communication applications because they are similar to text messages.

One consumer commenter stated that, of all the permissible limited-content message communication media, text messages have the greatest chance of being viewed only by the consumer. But most individual consumers and consumer advocates who addressed limited-content text messages opposed them. One consumer advocate argued that allowing limited-content text messages would subject consumers to unsolicited text message scams that could install malware on a consumer's mobile telephone or lead to identity theft. Another consumer advocate stated that limited-content text messages may be more likely to lead to prohibited third-party disclosures than limited-content voicemail messages because of the text message preview that often appears automatically on a smart phone screen. And one consumer advocate and one government commenter noted that, because the proposed frequency limits for telephone calls would not apply to text messages, debt collectors could send numerous limited-content text messages to consumers that, the commenters explained, would increase the chances of a prohibited third-party disclosure.

A few commenters addressed limited-content social media messages. One industry commenter recommended allowing limited-content social media messages in general, while another industry commenter suggested allowing only direct messages sent privately to the consumer. A consumer advocate and a group of State Attorneys General, however, opposed all limited-content social media messages. The consumer advocate stated that any limited-content social media messages would be overly invasive and that debt collectors have demonstrated a willingness to abuse social media platforms to harass consumers. The group of State Attorneys General asserted that limited-content social media messages would contain information about the sender similar to limited-content email messages. This commenter also suggested that advertising algorithms could identify limited-content social media messages as debt collection messages, and then target the consumer for debt collection advertisements on social media or across the internet.

Two industry commenters asked the Bureau to clarify that debt collectors may send “ringless voicemail” limited-content messages, or voicemail messages sent directly to a consumer's voicemail service provider without interacting with the consumer's mobile telephone.

Finally, one industry commenter recommended allowing limited-content mail messages because they would be less costly than validation notices. In contrast, consumer advocates believed the proposal would allow limited-content postcard messages, which, the commenter asserted, would violate FDCPA section 808(7)'s prohibition on communicating with a consumer regarding a debt by postcard.

After considering the comments received, the Bureau is finalizing only limited-content voicemail messages. As explained in the proposal, uncertainty regarding debt collector's obligations and consumer's rights under FDCPA sections 805(b) and 807(11) arose in the context of voicemail messages.[130] With this medium of communication, debt collectors face the dilemma of either repeatedly calling a consumer and hanging up, or leaving a voicemail message that might convey too much information in violation of FDCPA section 805(b) or too little information in violation of FDCPA section 807(11). And the Bureau understands that voicemail messages have been the subject of most litigation surrounding the intersection of these provisions. Accordingly, the need to define a specific message that is not a communication may be less pressing for other communication media, such as text messages, emails, or social media messages.

Apart from the absence of uncertainty and litigation comparable to voicemail messages, other communication media differ from voicemail messages in ways that are relevant to the limited-content message. Consumers may behave differently in response to voicemail messages than messages sent through other communication media. For example, because of cybersecurity concerns, consumers may be more likely to delete or ignore a generic text or email message from an unfamiliar sender than a similar voicemail message. As several commenters noted, email and text messages can contain links or other content that could install malware on a consumer's mobile telephone or computer. Indeed, several Federal agencies advise consumers to delete suspicious emails and text messages.[131] Finally, messages sent through other communication media might include information beyond that permitted by final § 1006.2(j). For example, a social media platform may limit debt collectors' ability to send messages to people outside a user's network, but a debt collector joining a consumer's network may create a prohibited third-party disclosure.[132]

For these reasons, final § 1006.2(j) limits the definition of limited-content messages to voicemail messages for a consumer.[133]

Final § 1006.2(j) identifies a voicemail message that debt collectors may leave for consumers without conveying information about a debt—and therefore communicating—under the final rule. Final § 1006.2(j) neither defines the exclusive means by which debt collectors can avoid conveying information about a debt nor reflects a determination that messages sent using other communication media are always communications under the FDCPA and the final rule. In addition, as noted above, final § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5) provides procedures that debt collectors Start Printed Page 76749may follow to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for unintentional third-party disclosures when communicating with consumers by email or text message.

Messages Left With Third Parties

Proposed § 1006.2(j) would have allowed a debt collector to leave a limited-content message orally with a third party. For example, a debt collector could have left a limited-content message in a live conversation with a third party who answered the consumer's home, mobile, or work telephone number. The Bureau received many comments on this aspect of the proposal.

Several industry commenters supported it. One trade group commenter explained that debt collectors often do not know whether a telephone number they are dialing belongs to the consumer, while another industry commenter argued that, without the ability to leave a limited-content message with anyone who answers a consumer's telephone, debt collectors would have to continue calling until they reach the consumer. Another trade group commenter requested that the Bureau allow debt collectors to ask third parties to convey the message to the consumer. One industry commenter asked whether debt collectors could combine limited-content messages with location calls, asserting that this would reduce the number of attempts to speak to a third party.

Many commenters, including consumer advocates, government commenters, numerous individual consumer commenters, and an academic commenter, opposed allowing debt collectors to leave limited-content messages with third parties. These commenters raised several issues with the proposal. First, most of these commenters believed that, after receiving a limited-content message in a live conversation, a third party would ask questions that, if answered, would reveal that the consumer owes or is alleged to owe a debt. These commenters further asserted that, even if the debt collector avoided answering a third party's questions, such evasiveness would also disclose that the call related to debt collection. Along with the risks created by the interactive nature of live conversations with third parties, Federal government agency staff encouraged the Bureau to consider the effect of debt collectors leaving limited-content messages in multiple live conversations with the same third party.

Second, some of these commenters expressed concern with limited-content messages left with particular third parties. For example, commenters, including many consumer advocates, expressed concern that a limited-content message left with an employer could threaten a consumer's continued employment. And one consumer advocate stated that domestic abusers could learn details of a consumer's financial situation or manipulate the debt collector into revealing other private information.

Third, some commenters asserted that the proposal could encourage debt collectors to intentionally contact third parties for the purpose of leaving limited-content messages. These commenters believed that a debt collector could indirectly harass a consumer by leaving limited-content messages with the consumer's friends, employers, coworkers, family, or other associates.

Fourth, consumer advocates expressed concern about the proposal's impact on third parties. Third parties, this commenter argued, may also find limited-content messages harassing or annoying and, as this commenter observed, the proposal would not have granted them the same rights as consumers to cease communications, designate inconvenient times and places, or restrict communication media.

Finally, consumer advocates asserted that allowing third-party limited-content messages would upset the statutory balance Congress struck between consumers' and debt collectors' interests. Under this commenter's interpretation, the FDCPA created a narrow exception to the prohibition on third-party communications only for location communications, which the proposal would violate by also permitting limited-content messages.

After further consideration, the Bureau is declining to finalize a definition of limited-content message that allows for third-party limited-content messages. As discussed above, final § 1006.2(j) is limited to voicemail messages. Thus, a limited-content message left in a live conversation with third parties would not meet the definition in § 1006.2(j). Regarding voicemail messages left with third parties, the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.2(j)(1) requires debt collectors to include a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business but not the name of the consumer. Prohibiting debt collectors from including the consumer's name greatly reduces the probability of any message left for a third party eventually reaching the consumer. Without a clear connection to the consumer, the Bureau finds that third-party voicemail messages would benefit neither consumers nor debt collectors. Therefore, final § 1006.2(j)'s definition of limited-content message does not permit third-party messages, either in live conversations or as voicemail messages.

The Bureau recognizes, however, that debt collectors are often unsure whether a person with whom they are attempting to communicate is the consumer. Indeed, the restricted content of the limited-content message contemplates the possibility of a third party hearing the information. Prohibiting all third-party limited-content messages, no matter how inadvertent, would unreasonably limit final § 1006.2(j). Therefore, messages left without knowledge that the voicemail belongs to a third party, or if a debt collector is unsure to whom the voicemail belongs, are limited-content messages. Accordingly, the Bureau is finalizing comment 2(j)-2 to clarify that a message knowingly left for a third party is not a limited-content message.

Importantly, nothing in final § 1006.2(j) places additional restrictions on debt collectors' abilities to communicate or attempt to communicate with third parties. Final § 1006.2(j) identifies a voicemail message that debt collectors may leave for consumers without conveying information about a debt—and therefore communicating—under the final rule. Final § 1006.2(j) does not attempt to define the exclusive means by which debt collectors can avoid conveying information about a debt. By finalizing a definition of limited-content message that excludes third-party messages, therefore, the Bureau has not determined that messages other than limited-content messages sent to third parties are always communications under the FDCPA and the final rule. The Bureau also notes that the final rule authorizes certain communications with third parties. For example, debt collectors may communicate with third parties to seek location information under § 1006.10 or with the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector as provided for under § 1006.6(d)(2)(ii).

Meaningful Disclosure of Identity

Proposed comment 2(j)-4 provided that a debt collector who placed a telephone call and left only a limited-content message for a consumer would not have, with respect to that telephone call, violated FDCPA section 806(6)'s prohibition on the placement of telephone calls without meaningful Start Printed Page 76750disclosure of the caller's identity. The Bureau based this interpretation on the fact that proposed § 1006.2(j)(1) would have required a limited-content message to include the name of a natural person whom the consumer could contact as well as a telephone number that the consumer could use to reply to the debt collector and that a limited-content message could not have contained any content that was not described in proposed § 1006.2(j)(1) or (2). The interpretation in proposed comment 2(j)-4 would have applied only when a debt collector placed a telephone call and left only a limited-content message for a consumer.

Two industry commenters believed that the proposed limited-content message satisfied the meaningful disclosure requirement because it required debt collectors to include the name of a natural person to whom the consumer could reply. But two groups of consumer advocates commented that the proposed limited-content message failed to meaningfully disclose the caller's identity because the natural person would likely be unknown to the consumer, might use an assumed name, and might not be the same person who leaves the voicemail message. Meaningful disclosure, these commenters asserted, would require disclosing the identity of the debt collector employing the natural person.

The Bureau determines that consumers benefit from the inclusion in the limited-content message of the name of a natural person, and a telephone number, to which a consumer may reply, as well as from the prohibition on false or misleading statements about the caller's identity or the purpose of the call. But the Bureau agrees with commenters' concerns regarding meaningful disclosure of the caller's identity. Consumers are unlikely to recognize the name of a natural person working for the debt collector, and who might be using an alias. And, as proposed, if the natural person to whom the consumer could reply was different from the natural person leaving the limited-content message, the only information concerning the caller's identity would have been the telephone number included under proposed § 1006.2(j)(1)(iv). For this reason, and as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(j)(1)(i), the final rule requires limited-content messages to include a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business. Not only is the debt collector's business name more useful to consumers, but it also better ensures that debt collectors who leave limited-content messages do not violate FDCPA section 806(6) requiring meaningful disclosure of a debt collector's identity in telephone calls. Because § 1006.2(j)(1)(i) requires that the business name included in a limited-content message not reveal that a debt collector is in the debt collection business, debt collectors may be uncertain whether business names with abbreviations designed to satisfy § 1006.2(j)(1)(i) satisfy the meaningful disclosure requirement. The Bureau is adopting proposed comment 2(j)-4, renumbered as comment 2(j)-3, to clarify that a debt collector who leaves a limited-content message does not violate the requirement to meaningfully disclose the caller's identity with respect to that message.

Implementation Issues

A few industry commenters raised implementation issues related to the proposed limited-content message. These commenters cited issues that may prevent debt collectors from leaving limited-content messages, such as disconnected telephone numbers, voicemail message system limitations, and telephone network errors. They requested that the Bureau clarify that debt collectors who leave incomplete limited-content messages because of technological issues have still left a limited-content message.

Final § 1006.2(j) reflects a carefully tailored message designed to meaningfully disclose the caller's identity and include enough information to permit a consumer to decide how to respond while avoiding conveying information regarding a debt. A partial limited-content message would be less likely to achieve these purposes. Accordingly, the Bureau declines to define partial limited-content messages as limited-content messages. The Bureau notes, however, that nothing in the final rule automatically transforms a partial limited-content message into a communication. If such a message is inconsistent with the final rule despite being caused by inadvertent technological issues, e.g., because the call is dropped before the debt collector can leave its business name, and thereby does not disclose its identity, the Bureau notes that such issues can arise in the context of any telephone call (not just a limited-content message). Depending on the circumstances the bona fide error defense to civil liability in FDCPA section 813(c) may also apply.

Limited-Content Messages and State Laws

A few commenters raised issues related to State laws. A local government commenter asserted that the proposed limited-content message would confuse debt collectors who must also comply with State laws that lack similar provisions. More specifically, a trade group commenter claimed that debt collectors would be unable to leave limited-content messages in States requiring disclosure of the debt collector's business name in every communication. One trade group commenter asked the Bureau to add optional language to proposed § 1006.2(j)(2) to accommodate additional State law disclosures, while another trade group commenter asked the Bureau to preempt such State laws. These commenters did not specifically mention items of information other than the debt collector's name that would be inconsistent with the proposed limited-content message.

As noted above, final § 1006.2(j) identifies a voicemail message that debt collectors can leave for consumers without conveying information about a debt—and therefore communicating—under the final rule. Accordingly, § 1006.2(j) is a definition and by itself neither requires nor prohibits any action. Circumstances might exist, such as when State law requires additional or different information to be included in a voicemail message, under which debt collectors are unable to take advantage of the ability to leave limited-content messages. To the extent commenters' concerns about inconsistent State law concern the name of the debt collector, final § 1006.2(j)(1)(i) requires limited-content messages to include a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business.[134]

Fraudulent Messages

A few consumer advocates and local government commenters stated that the proposed limited-content message would enable fraud. These commenters argued that the limited-content message was so generic that it could be adopted by scammers and used for fraudulent purposes. Some of these commenters believed that, by proposing to define the limited-content message, the Bureau was contradicting the advice that Federal agencies have given consumers about how to recognize and respond to fraudulent messages. These commenters stated that Federal agencies recommend that consumers ignore messages Start Printed Page 76751containing limited information or coming from unfamiliar senders. But these commenters claimed that the Bureau would encourage consumers to respond to such messages if they took the form of the proposed limited-content message. One consumer advocate cited the heightened cybersecurity risks of limited-content text or email messages, which might contain links or other content that could install malware on a consumer's mobile telephone or computer.

The Bureau has considered these risks and determines that final § 1006.2(j) does not heighten the risk of exploitation by scammers. First, the Bureau is aware of no evidence that voicemail messages currently left by debt collectors, some of which closely resemble final § 1006.2(j)'s limited-content message, have increased bad actors' abilities to harm consumers. Second, the final rule limits the definition of limited-content message to voicemail messages, which should lessen commenters' concerns about limited-content email and text messages. Third, final § 1006.2(j)(1)(i) requires limited-content messages to include a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business. Improved information about the identity of the caller decreases any similarity between the limited-content message adopted under this final rule and the types of fraudulent messages about which Federal agencies have warned consumers.

Familiarity With Limited-Content Messages

Several consumer advocates and government commenters argued that the public would eventually become familiar with the limited-content message and associate it with debt collection, suggesting the limited-content message itself would create a prohibited third-party disclosure even if its content alone did not convey information regarding a debt.

As an initial matter, the Bureau notes that limited-content messages may vary slightly in their content because debt collectors may choose to include different items of optional information described in final § 1006.2(j)(2). The Bureau understands that, despite the legal uncertainty in the voicemail context, some debt collectors have been leaving messages that some courts have held are not communications. The Bureau is not aware of any evidence that these messages, some of which closely resemble final § 1006.2(j)'s limited-content message, are so familiar to consumers that the message itself automatically creates a prohibited third-party disclosure. And the Bureau does not believe that any level of familiarity would allow a third party to exclude alternative plausible explanations for a limited-content message, such as a debt collector dialing the wrong telephone number or a debt collector calling for non-collection purposes.

Interaction With Other Provisions of Regulation F

Consumer advocates expressed concern that certain provisions of the proposal governing communications would not apply to the proposed limited-content message, including proposed § 1006.6(d)(1)'s prohibitions regarding communications with third parties, proposed § 1006.10's provisions regarding location communications, proposed § 1006.18(e)'s disclosures, proposed § 1006.22(f)(1)'s prohibition on communicating with consumers by postcard, and proposed § 1006.34's requirements regarding sending validation notices to consumers. The Bureau has evaluated the scope of the final rule and determines that each substantive provision addresses a range of conduct appropriate to achieve the goals of that section. The section-by-section analysis throughout part V provides additional explanation for each of the final rule's substantive provisions.

Interaction With Other Federal Law

One trade group commenter stated that the proposed limited-content message was potentially inconsistent with the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) rules implementing the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) [135] and the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA)'s industry standards. Specifically, this commenter argued that limited-content text messages sent without a consumer's prior consent may violate the TCPA or industry standards. As explained above, final § 1006.2(j) is limited to voicemail messages. The Bureau declines to address limited-content text messages.

For the reasons discussed above and pursuant to its authority to interpret FDCPA section 803(2), the Bureau is finalizing the proposed definition of limited-content message with revisions. Specifically, final § 1006.2(j) provides that a limited-content message is a voicemail message for a consumer that includes all of the content described in § 1006.2(j)(1), that may include any of the content described in § 1006.2(j)(2), and that includes no other content.

The Bureau is finalizing comment 2(j)-1 largely as proposed but with revisions to the reflect the decision to limit the definition of limited-content message to messages left for a consumer by voicemail and to provide an example of a message that is not a limited-content message. New comment 2(j)-2 clarifies that, for the reasons discussed above, a message knowingly left for a third party is not a limited-content message because it is not for a consumer and provides an example. Finally, the Bureau is finalizing proposed comment 2(j)-4 regarding meaningful disclosure of a caller's identity as comment 2(j)-3.

2(j)(1) Required Content

Proposed § 1006.2(j)(1) would have required limited-content messages to include the following content to ensure that they facilitate contact between debt collectors and consumers: The consumer's name (proposed § 1006.2(j)(1)(i)); a request that the consumer reply to the message (proposed § 1006.2(j)(1)(ii)); the name or names of one or more natural persons whom the consumer can contact to reply to the debt collector (proposed § 1006.2(j)(1)(iii)); a telephone number that the consumer can use to reply to the debt collector (proposed § 1006.2(j)(1)(iv)); and, if delivered electronically, a disclosure explaining how the consumer can stop receiving messages through that medium (proposed § 1006.2(j)(1)(iv)). Proposed comment 2(j)(1)(iv)-1 explained that a voicemail or a text message that spells out, rather than enumerates numerically, a vanity telephone number is not a limited-content message. Spelling out a vanity telephone number could, in some circumstances, convey information about a debt or otherwise disclose that the message is from a debt collector.

For the reasons described below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(j)(1) largely as proposed but with modifications to reflect the revised scope of the definition, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(j), and to require a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business, in lieu of the consumer's name in § 1006.2(j)(1)(i).

Many industry commenters requested that the Bureau require or permit additional information in the limited-content message. Without additional content, these commenters asserted, consumers would view the limited-content message as uninformative, confusing, or suspicious. Most of these commenters asked the Bureau to allow debt collectors to disclose their business Start Printed Page 76752name, especially if the name did not reveal that the debt collector was in the debt collection business. A few commenters pointed to FDCPA section 808(8), which allows debt collectors to include their business name on an envelope if the name does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business. Three commenters cited the Bureau's Debt Collection Consumer Survey, which found that almost 90 percent of consumers reported that they preferred voicemail messages to include the creditor or debt collector's name. Along with the debt collector's name, industry commenters asked the Bureau to include various items of information, including: the creditor's name; the debt collector's website address; the type of account, such as a student loan or branded credit card; the debt collector's email address or other electronic contact information; an invitation to enroll in a debt collector's text messaging service; and four consecutive digits from an account number.

After considering the comments, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(j)(1) to require a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business, in lieu of the consumer's name in § 1006.2(j)(1)(i). As commenters who referred to the Bureau's Debt Collection Consumer Survey noted, most consumers prefer that voicemail messages disclose the caller's institutional identity.[136] Including the debt collector's business name will enable consumers to verify the debt collector's legitimacy and make a better-informed decision about what action, if any, to take in response to the limited-content voicemail message. Consistent with the advice of several Federal agencies, consumers who are suspicious of a limited-content message can use the debt collector's business name to research the company and reply using contact information the consumer finds rather than relying on the telephone number included in the message.[137] Consumers may also be more likely to reply to a limited-content message if they believe the message is legitimate. Finally, requiring limited-content messages to include the debt collector's business name ensures meaningful disclosure of the caller's identity consistent with FDCPA section 806(6), as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(j), above.

The Bureau is not finalizing the consumer's name as a required or optional element of the limited-content message as proposed. The Bureau finds that a message containing a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business, but not the consumer's name avoids conveying information regarding a debt under FDCPA section 803(2). A third party overhearing such a message would be unable, based on the message's content alone, to rule out several alternative explanations for the message other than that the consumer owes a debt. For example, the third party may believe that a business other than a debt collector has left the message, because final § 1006.2(j)(1) permits only business names that do not indicate that a debt collector is in the debt collection business. Even if a third party believes that a debt collector has left the message, the debt collector might have dialed the wrong telephone number; the debt collector might have dialed the intended telephone number but have inaccurate information about to whom the telephone number is assigned; the debt collector might be calling to seek location information from the consumer; [138] or the debt collector might be calling for a non-debt-collection purpose.[139] Including the consumer's name would narrow the range of alternative explanations and increase the risk of third-party disclosure.[140] Accordingly, final § 1006.2(j)(1) does not include the consumer's name in the limited-content message.

Based on the range of industry commenters who supported including a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business, the Bureau expects that many debt collectors will be able to disclose a business name (e.g., a doing business as (d/b/a) name) without revealing that they are in the debt collection business. Moreover, industry has long been subject to FDCPA section 808(8), which allows debt collectors to include their business name on an envelope only if the name does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business. But circumstances might exist that would prevent debt collectors from taking advantage of the limited-content message definition. For example, a debt collector's business name might reveal that the debt collector is in the debt collection business. In such circumstances, a message that includes the debt collector's business name would not be a limited-content message, as defined in final § 1006.2(j). But, as explained above, final § 1006.2(j) identifies a voicemail message that debt collectors may leave for consumers without conveying information about a debt—and therefore communicating—under the final rule. Final § 1006.2(j) neither defines the exclusive means by which debt collectors can avoid conveying information about a debt nor Start Printed Page 76753reflects a determination that messages that include a business name that reveals that a debt collector is in the debt collection business are always communications under the FDCPA and the final rule.

The Bureau declines to require other information in the content of the limited-content message as requested by commenters. Some information commenters requested be included, such as invitations to enroll in a debt collector's text messaging service, is less relevant given that final § 1006.2(j) is limited to voicemail messages. In addition, the Bureau finds that debt collectors can better convey information regarding electronic communication options to consumers by emailing or texting them consistent with the safe harbor procedures for electronic communications in final § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5). Other requested information, such as descriptions of, or digits from, an account, or the fact that the account was held with a particular creditor, would convey information regarding a debt, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(j)(2), below.

A trade group commenter asked whether caller ID information that discloses the debt collector's business name would prevent a debt collector from leaving a limited-content message. As explained immediately above, the final rule requires limited-content messages to include a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business. Accordingly, caller ID information that discloses no more than the business name or other content required or permitted by § 1006.2(j) is consistent with the definition of a limited-content message. The Bureau acknowledges that caller ID information may disclose more information than permitted by § 1006.2(j). In these circumstances, such voicemail messages would not meet the definition of limited-content message. The Bureau does not determine, however, that messages with different content, such as a business name displayed by caller ID that reveals that a debt collector is in the debt collection business, are always communications under the FDCPA and the final rule.

The Bureau is not finalizing proposed § 1006.2(j)(1)(v), which would have required the limited-content message to include, if delivered electronically, a disclosure explaining how the consumer can stop receiving messages through that medium. Because final § 1006.2(j) is limited to voicemail messages, this element is no longer applicable.

Similarly, the Bureau is not finalizing proposed comment 2(j)(1)(iv)-1, which would have explained that a voicemail or a text message that spells out, rather than enumerates numerically, a vanity telephone number is not a limited-content message. This comment was intended to address concerns that spelling out a vanity telephone number might convey information about a debt or otherwise disclose the name of the debt collector. Because § 1006.2(j)(1)(i) requires disclosing a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business, this comment is less relevant to the limited-content message as finalized. The Bureau notes, however, that a vanity telephone number that reveals that the debt collector is in the debt collection business would not comply with final § 1006.2(j)(1)(i). As explained above, the Bureau finds that a message containing the debt collector's business name but not the consumer's name avoids conveying information regarding a debt under FDCPA section 803(2) and under § 1006.2(d).

For the reasons discussed above, § 1006.2(j)(1) requires that limited-content messages include the following content: A business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business, a request that the consumer reply to the message, the name or names of one or more natural persons whom the consumer can contact to reply to the debt collector, and a telephone number or numbers that the consumer can use to reply to the debt collector. Comment 2(j)(1)-1 provides an example of a limited-content message containing only required content.

2(j)(2) Optional Content

Proposed § 1006.2(j)(2) would have permitted a debt collector to include in a limited-content message the following optional information: A salutation (proposed § 1006.2(j)(2)(i)), the date and time of the message (proposed § 1006.2(j)(2)(ii)), a generic statement that the message relates to an account (proposed § 1006.2(j)(2)(iii)), and suggested dates and times for the consumer to reply to the message (proposed § 1006.2(j)(2)(iv)). As discussed in the proposal, the Bureau believed that this content might prompt a consumer to reply but, unlike the content described in proposed § 1006.2(j)(1), might not be necessary to enable the consumer to reply to the message or to prevent harassment through an overly generic or uninformative message. For the reasons described below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.2(j)(2) largely as proposed, but with revisions to prohibit inclusion of a generic statement that the message relates to an account, and to permit a statement that a consumer who replies to the message can speak to any of the debt collector's representatives or associates.

Numerous commenters addressed proposed § 1006.2(j)(2)(iii)'s optional generic statement that the message relates to an account. Only a few commenters supported this provision. A trade group commenter stated that it had considered alternative language but found it potentially confusing, while an individual believed the word “account” was too general to result in any prohibited third-party disclosures.

In contrast, most of the commenters who addressed the issue opposed the optional reference to an account. Industry commenters generally believed that the word account was too vague to be useful to consumers. These commenters argued that such a reference would be unlikely to prompt consumers to reply. One trade group commenter asserted that fraudulent voicemail messages often contain references to a generic account. Another industry commenter believed that the word “account” might reveal more information than the name of the creditor or debt collector.

Several consumer advocates and government commenters also opposed allowing debt collectors to refer to an account. These commenters argued that the word account would itself reveal the existence of a debt or otherwise invade a consumer's privacy. Some of these commenters argued that the word account inherently discloses the existence of a debt. An academic commenter asserted that most non-debt collection messages include more information about the nature of the consumer's account. One group of consumer advocates cited cases holding that certain messages were not communications under the FDCPA and argued that the absence of a reference to an account was important to the holding in those cases.

The Bureau does not believe that the word account necessarily discloses the existence of a debt because consumers may receive messages about their accounts with companies other than debt collectors. In the context of the final rule's limited-content message, however, referring to an account would increase the risk of a prohibited third-party disclosure. As discussed above in the section-by-section analysis finalizing § 1006.2(j)(1)(i)'s requirement to include the debt collector's business name, a third party overhearing a Start Printed Page 76754limited-content message on a consumer's voicemail system would be unable to determine whether a debt collector or another business left the message, or assuming a debt collector left the message, whether the debt collector left it because the consumer owes a debt or for another reason. But including the word account narrows the range of possible alternative explanations for the message. For example, a message to a consumer referring to “your account” is unlikely to be a message seeking location information from the recipient. This raises the probability of a third party inferring that the message relates to a consumer's debt.[141]

Additionally, the proposal may have overestimated the benefits of an optional generic statement that the message relates to an account. As commenters noted, debt collectors could not include information about the account, such as the type of account or the company with whom the account is held. The presence of such information would risk conveying information about a debt, but its absence leaves the consumer without important context that may prompt consumers to reply, if they so choose. As explained in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(j)(1)(i), the business name of the debt collector is more beneficial to consumers. In light of the limited utility of a reference to an account, the Bureau finds that such content would create an unjustified risk of prohibited third-party disclosure. Accordingly, final § 1006.2(j) no longer provides that a limited-content message may include a generic reference to an account.

Several industry commenters asked the Bureau to modify proposed § 1006.2(j)(1)(iii)'s requirement that a limited-content message include the name or names of one or more natural persons whom the consumer can contact to reply to the debt collector. These commenters stated that large debt collectors would be unable to predict which natural person might be available to answer a consumer's reply. These commenters offered several solutions, including permitting limited-content messages to refer generally to “agents,” “associates,” “representatives,” or particular groups or organizations within the debt collector. Such an approach, some commenters asserted, would allow debt collectors to maintain consistency with other Federal rules that provide more flexibility in identifying the individuals with whom a consumer might communicate.

The Bureau finds that the name of a natural person to whom a consumer may reply is an important element of the limited-content message.[142] Such information helps efficiently direct the consumer's reply call to a person who is able to discuss the consumer's debt. But the Bureau agrees with commenters that some flexibility regarding this information would benefit consumers and debt collectors. If someone other than the natural person identified in the limited-content message answered their reply call, consumers likely would not be confused or frustrated, and large debt collectors could more easily employ the limited-content message. Certain references to a debt collector's groups or offices, such as the “credit card receivables group,” however, might heighten the risk of a prohibited third-party disclosure. A general reference to other “representatives or associates,” on the other hand, would minimize such risk while achieving the purposes identified by commenters. Accordingly, final § 1006.2(j)(2)(iv) defines the limited-content message to include an optional statement that, if the consumer replies, the consumer may speak to any of the company's representatives or associates.

For the reasons discussed above, final § 1006.2(j)(2) permits a limited-content message to include the following content: A salutation, the date and time of the message, suggested dates and times for the consumer to reply to the message, and a statement that, if the consumer replies, the consumer may speak to any of the company's representatives or associates. Comment 2(j)(2)-1 clarifies that a message that includes a more detailed description of a company's representative or associate group is not a limited-content message and provides an illustrative example. Comment 2(j)(2)-2 provides an example of a limited-content message that includes all of the information required under § 1006.2(j)(1) and all of the content permitted under § 1006.2(j)(2).

2(k) Person

The FDCPA frequently uses, but does not define, the term person. The Bureau proposed § 1006.2(k) to define person, consistent with the definition of that term in 1 U.S.C. 1, to include “corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” [143]

Three industry associations stated that the proposed definition was overly expansive and would impermissibly expand standing to bring an FDCPA claim to artificial entities even though the purpose of the FDCPA is to protect consumers. The commenters requested that the proposed definition either be deleted or limited to natural persons.

The Bureau is finalizing the definition of person as proposed. Including this definition will clarify who is subject to provisions of the regulation that use the term person. The Bureau declines to delete the definition of person or to narrow it to include only natural persons because the plain language of the FDCPA illustrates that Congress did not intend to limit the term person, as used in the FDCPA, to natural persons. For example, the definition of debt collector in the FDCPA uses the phrase “any person” repeatedly, and there is no doubt that Congress intended to include non-natural persons in the definition of debt collector. Where the statute was intended to be limited to natural persons, Congress achieved that intent by using the term consumer. For example, FDCPA section 803(5) defines the term debt to include obligations of a consumer, and FDCPA section 803(3) limits the term consumer to a natural person. As a result, the Bureau concludes that the proposed definition of person would not expand the scope of the FDCPA beyond the scope that Congress intended. However, the Bureau is clarifying in the definition of debt at § 1006.2(h) that debt subject to the FDCPA is limited to debt incurred by a natural person. See the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(h) for additional discussion.

Subpart B—Rules for FDCPA Debt Collectors [144]

Section 1006.6 Communications in Connection With Debt Collection

FDCPA section 805 generally limits how debt collectors may communicate with consumers and third parties when collecting debts.[145] The Bureau proposed § 1006.6 to implement and interpret FDCPA section 805, and to Start Printed Page 76755interpret FDCPA sections 806 and 808 to provide certain additional protections regarding debt collection communications. As discussed in more detail below, § 1006.6, among other things, specifies and clarifies a debt collector's obligation to abide by a consumer's preferences when communicating in connection with the collection of any debt. Section 1006.6 also interprets FDCPA sections 805, 806, and 808 with respect to newer communication technologies. And to protect consumer privacy, § 1006.6 identifies procedures reasonably adapted to avoid a violation of FDCPA section 805(b)'s prohibition on third-party disclosures when communicating by email or text message. Pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to write rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6 with certain changes to address feedback and other consumer protection concerns.

Electronic Communications in Debt Collection

As proposed, § 1006.6 would have clarified how various provisions in FDCPA section 805, such as the prohibitions against communications at inconvenient times and places and the prohibition against communicating about a debt with a third party, would have applied to electronic communications such as emails and text messages. The proposal would not have prohibited any particular methods of electronic communication or established an opt-in framework for such communications. The Bureau received a large number of comments in response to the particular proposed interventions, and the Bureau addresses those comments in the section-by-section analysis below.

In addition, the Bureau received many comments addressing the risks and benefits of electronic communications in debt collection. In general, industry commenters supported the use of electronic communications, noting that, compared to non-electronic communications such as mail and telephone calls, electronic communications are faster and more cost effective; enable debt collectors to reach consumers who do not answer the telephone or who change addresses frequently; provide consumers with more privacy and greater control over the time and place of engagement; and create a digital record of a consumer's interactions with a debt collector. Many industry commenters asserted that, because of these benefits, consumers wish to communicate electronically, and several industry commenters reported receiving such requests from consumers. But industry commenters also generally stated that they refrain from communicating electronically because they fear liability under FDCPA section 805(b) for an unintentional third-party disclosure, such as if they send an email or a text message to an email address or telephone number that does not belong to the consumer.

A few individual consumers expressed a general interest in communicating with debt collectors electronically. But most individual consumer and consumer advocate commenters, as well as consumer attorney, academic, and government commenters, raised concerns about the Bureau's proposals and either opposed electronic communications in debt collection, or supported them only if the consumer had first explicitly consented, or opted in, to receiving them. These commenters argued that an opt-in approach would enable consumers, before agreeing to electronic communications, to: (1) Weigh any risks due to irregular internet or cellphone access; (2) confirm the addresses and telephone numbers to which electronic communications may be directed, ensuring that, particularly for consumers who regularly change telephone numbers or email addresses, communications are sent to the consumer rather than to a third party; (3) weigh the financial cost, if any, of electronic communications; (4) familiarize themselves with the sender and weigh any security risks, helping to ensure that consumers actually open emails and minimizing the chance that such emails are blocked by spam filters and other screening devices; [146] and (5) weigh any privacy-related risks, including the risk that emails and text messages could be viewed by a consumer's telephone or email provider, could appear on a publicly visible computer or telephone screen, or could be coming from a phony, rather than legitimate, debt collector.[147]

The Bureau determines that electronic communications can offer benefits to consumers and debt collectors. Technologies such as email and text messaging allow consumers to exert greater control over the timing, frequency, and duration of communications with debt collectors, including by choosing when, where, and how much time to spend responding to a debt collector's email or text message. For debt collectors, these technologies are a more effective and efficient means of communicating with some consumers. The Bureau declines to categorically prohibit the use of these potentially beneficial communication media where Congress has not amended the FDCPA to prohibit their use.

As to commenters' specific concerns regarding privacy and the risks of third-party disclosure, § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5) sets forth procedures that a debt collector may follow to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for a third-party disclosure when sending an email or a text message to a consumer. The Bureau expects that most debt collectors will use the procedures, which are designed to protect consumers against the risk of third-party disclosure, when communicating by email and text message. As to commenters' other concerns, the Bureau notes that, as discussed in the section-by-section analyses of §§ 1006.6(b) and (e) and 1006.14(h), the Bureau is finalizing provisions that will require debt collectors to provide consumers with a reasonable and simple method of opting out of electronic communications and that will permit consumers to control the time, place, and media through which debt collectors may communicate. In addition, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.42, the Bureau is finalizing a general standard for electronic delivery of required disclosures. The Bureau determines that the final rule's overall approach to electronic communications addresses commenters' concerns.

Consumer and consumer advocate commenters, some members of Congress, a group of State Attorneys General, and other State and local government commenters also expressed specific concern about the costs of text messaging.[148] For consumers who lack unlimited text messaging plans, sending and receiving text messages may not be free. Some consumers with limited text messaging plans may pay for each text message; others may pay for each text message above a cap. Consumer advocate commenters noted that many of their clients maintain limited text messaging plans. The prevalence of such plans among the general public, or among consumers with debts in collection, is not clear, although some information suggests that most Start Printed Page 76756consumers in general have unlimited text messaging plans.[149]

Consumer and consumer advocate commenters, some members of Congress, a group of State Attorneys General, and other State and local government commenters urged the Bureau to address the costs associated with text messaging by requiring debt collectors to obtain affirmative consent before sending text messages. These commenters argued that an opt-in system would enable consumers to weigh the costs of text messages before agreeing to receive them from a debt collector. As discussed in detail below, § 1006.6(d)(5) specifies procedures that, when followed, provide a debt collector with a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when sending a text message to a telephone number. These procedures effectively create an opt-in system for the use of text messages, and, as noted, the Bureau expects that most debt collectors will use them.

Several consumer advocate commenters, some members of Congress, a State Attorney General, and other government commenters suggested that the Bureau address the costs associated with text messaging by requiring debt collectors to use free-to-end-user (FTEU) text messaging or otherwise require debt collectors to pay for text messages. The Bureau believes that the limitations in final § 1006.6(d)(5)—which, as noted, effectively create an opt-in system for text messages—offer a more practical solution than requiring debt collectors to use FTEU text messaging. Consumers who do not wish to incur the cost of text messages are unlikely to opt into a debt collector's use of text messages, and, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(e), a consumer who no longer wishes to receive text messages from a debt collector must be provided with a reasonable and simple way to opt out of such communications. Further, as the Bureau noted in the proposal, because FTEU text messaging may only be supported by certain wireless platforms, requiring debt collectors to use FTEU text messaging may not offer a solution for all consumers—a concern that commenters generally did not address.[150] For these reasons, and in light of the other provisions in the final rule addressing debt collectors' use of text messages, the Bureau declines to finalize a requirement that debt collectors use FTEU technology.

6(a) Definition

FDCPA section 805(d) provides that, for purposes of section 805, the term consumer includes certain individuals other than the person obligated or allegedly obligated to pay the debt. These individuals include the consumer's spouse, parent (if the consumer is a minor), guardian, executor, or administrator.[151] Accordingly, the protections in FDCPA section 805 apply both to these individuals and to the person obligated or allegedly obligated to pay the debt. Also, debt collectors may communicate with these individuals in connection with the collection of any debt without violating the FDCPA's prohibition on third-party disclosures.[152]

The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(a) to implement and interpret FDCPA section 805(d) and to define consumer for purposes of § 1006.6. Proposed § 1006.6(a) generally mirrored FDCPA section 805(d), except that proposed § 1006.6(a)(5) would have interpreted the term to include a confirmed successor in interest, and proposed comments 6(a)(1)-1, 6(a)(2)-1, and 6(a)(4)-1 would have clarified how the term applied when the consumer obligated or allegedly obligated on the debt had died. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(a) largely as proposed, but is making minor changes for clarity.[153]

6(a)(1) and (2)

FDCPA section 805(d) defines the term consumer for purposes of section 805 to include the consumer's spouse and (if the consumer is a minor) parent.[154] Proposed § 1006.6(a)(1) and (2) would have implemented these aspects of the definition.[155] In addition, the Bureau proposed comments 6(a)(1)-1 and 6(a)(2)-1 to clarify that deceased consumers' surviving spouses and deceased minor consumers' parents, respectively, are consumers for purposes of § 1006.6. This interpretation was consistent with the Bureau's proposal to interpret the general definition of consumer in § 1006.2(e) to include deceased persons.[156]

A group of consumer advocates objected to proposed comments 6(a)(1)-1 and 6(a)(2)-1. These commenters argued that the language of the FDCPA forecloses the proposed interpretation because it includes present-tense language in describing the consumer's parent and avoids the term surviving spouse, which Congress used elsewhere in the U.S. Code. These commenters further argued that no legitimate reason existed for a debt collector to communicate with consumers' surviving spouses or parents of deceased minor consumers because the FDCPA permits (as would a final rule) location communications and communications with executors or administrators of a deceased consumer's estate. Finally, the commenters urged the Bureau to expressly prohibit debt collectors from communicating with anyone in the decedent debt context unless the debt collector had determined that the person owed a debt or was the executor or administrator of a deceased consumer's estate.

On several issues related to decedent debt, the Bureau is finalizing an approach consistent with the FTC's Policy Statement on Decedent Debt.[157] The FTC stated that it would decline to take enforcement actions against debt collectors who communicated with “the decedent's spouse [or] parent (if the decedent was a minor at the time of death).” [158] The FTC rejected the same legal arguments that the commenter raised against proposed comments 6(a)(1)-1 and 6(a)(2)-1 for reasons that Start Printed Page 76757the Bureau finds persuasive here.[159] In addition, the Bureau finds that legitimate reasons exist for communications between debt collectors and a deceased consumer's surviving spouse or the parents of a deceased minor consumer, especially if they had previously communicated with a debt collector while the consumer was alive. For example, such individuals may wish to obtain information from, or continue conversations with, the debt collector about the consumer's financial condition. Accordingly, the Bureau is finalizing comments 6(a)(1)-1 and 6(a)(2)-1, as proposed, to clarify that surviving spouses and parents of deceased minor consumers, respectively, are consumers for purposes of § 1006.6.

6(a)(4)

FDCPA section 805(d) defines the term consumer for purposes of section 805 to include executors and administrators.[160] Proposed § 1006.6(a)(4) would have implemented this aspect of the definition and, in commentary, interpreted it to include the personal representative of the deceased consumer's estate, i.e., any person “authorized to act on behalf of the estate.” [161]

Several commenters supported the description of personal representative. One trade group commenter stated that the proposal's accommodation of informal estate resolution processes would help prevent consumers from experiencing frustration when trying to contact debt collectors to resolve a deceased consumer's estate. Federal government agency staff commented that the proposal largely mirrored the FTC's Policy Statement on Decedent Debt and expressed support for the goals of the proposal.

A few commenters suggested modifications to proposed comment 6(a)(4)-1. Three trade group commenters stated that the interpretation regarding personal representative was so important that the Bureau should add it to the regulation text rather than describing it in commentary. One trade group commenter suggested that the Bureau expand the description of personal representative to encompass anyone that a debt collector “has reason to believe” is authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate. Another trade group commenter recommended incorporating a reference to State law in proposed § 1006.6(a)(4) because the commenter believed that the term personal representative would not accommodate States that use different language to describe such individuals. Similarly, an industry commenter suggested that the Bureau should expand proposed § 1006.6(a)(4) by adding several terms that might refer to individuals handling a deceased consumer's estate.

A group of consumer advocates stated that the description of the term personal representative would be overly broad unless the Bureau limited it to individuals “authorized under State probate or estate law” to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate. For example, these commenters explained that many people might dispose of a deceased consumer's assets extrajudicially by selling or donating personal possessions and that such people should not be considered personal representatives.

As described in the proposal and in the FTC's Policy Statement on Decedent Debt, the ability to resolve the debts of estates outside of the formal probate process through informal processes benefits consumers and debt collectors.[162] If a debt collector does not communicate with an estate because no executor or administrator exists, the debt collector might force the estate into probate, which could substantially burden the resources of the estate and the deceased consumer's heirs or beneficiaries. These burdens may be particularly acute for small estates and for individuals of limited means. Probate also adds costs and delays for debt collectors. Accordingly, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(a)(4) and its commentary largely as proposed.

The Bureau finds that certain changes requested by commenters are unnecessary. First, it is unnecessary to incorporate comment 6(a)(4)-1, which describes other persons authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate, into the regulation text. The commentary to Regulation F is issued under the same authority as the corresponding provisions of the regulation and has been adopted in accordance with the notice-and-comment procedures of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).[163] Second, the Bureau declines to expand the description of personal representative to encompass anyone that a debt collector “has reason to believe” is authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate. This revision is unnecessary because, as the FTC explained, debt collectors have a variety of tools available to locate persons authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate, including public record searches and location communications, which are discussed in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.10.[164] Furthermore, such a standard would be inconsistent with the FDCPA's treatment of the other persons included under section 805(d)'s definition of consumer. Finally, commenters are mistaken in asserting that proposed § 1006.6(a)(4) and comment 6(a)(4)-1 failed to accommodate State laws that use terms other than personal representative. As comment 6(a)(4)-1 explained, the proposal would have included anyone who performs the functions of an executor, administrator, or personal representative, and does not require that such persons be identified by a specific term in State law, such as personal representative. Thus, an explicit reference to State law is not necessary.

In response to consumer advocates' concern that the proposed definition of personal representative was too broad, the Bureau revises comment 6(a)(4)-1 to clarify the description of persons who dispose of the deceased consumer's assets extrajudicially. The Bureau understands that, although many individuals might sell or dispose of a deceased consumer's property extrajudicially, these individuals would not necessarily “be authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate,” as the commentary requires. The Bureau is also unaware of any attempts by debt collectors to interpret the FTC's Policy Statement on Decedent Debt in such a manner. Nevertheless, to increase clarity, final comment 6(a)(4)-1 refers to “financial assets or other assets of monetary value” in describing such individuals.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(a)(4), which defines the term consumer for purposes of § 1006.6 to include executors and administrators. Final comment 6(a)(4)-1 clarifies that the Start Printed Page 76758terms executor or administrator include the personal representative of the consumer's estate. A personal representative is any person who is authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate. Persons with such authority may include personal representatives under the informal probate and summary administration procedures of many States, persons appointed as universal successors, persons who sign declarations or affidavits to effectuate the transfer of estate assets, and persons who dispose of the deceased consumer's financial assets or other assets of monetary value extrajudicially.

6(a)(5)

The Bureau proposed to interpret FDCPA section 805(d)'s definition of the term consumer to include confirmed successors in interest, as defined in Regulation X, 12 CFR 1024.31, and Regulation Z, 12 CFR 1026.2(a)(27)(ii).[165] As the Bureau has previously explained, while many mortgage servicers are not subject to the FDCPA, mortgage servicers that acquired a mortgage loan at the time that it was in default may be subject to the FDCPA with respect to that mortgage loan.[166] As discussed in the proposal,[167] a successor in interest under those regulations is, in general, a person to whom an ownership interest either in a property securing a mortgage loan subject to subpart C of Regulation X, or in a dwelling securing a closed-end consumer credit transaction under Regulation Z is transferred under specified circumstances including, for example, after a consumer's death or as part of a divorce.[168] A confirmed successor in interest, in turn, means a successor in interest once a mortgage servicer has confirmed the successor in interest's identity and ownership interest in the property that secures the mortgage loan [169] or in the dwelling.[170] The Bureau proposed to include such persons in the definition of consumer under § 1006.6 because, given their relationship to the individual who owes or allegedly owes the debt, confirmed successors in interest are—like the narrow categories of persons enumerated in FDCPA section 805(d)—the type of individuals with whom a debt collector needs to communicate about the debt.[171]

One industry commenter stated that the Bureau cannot include a confirmed successor in interest in implementing FDCPA section 805(d)'s definition of consumer because the Bureau lacks authority to include persons not contemplated by Congress. The commenter also questioned how the Bureau expects a debt collector to become aware of the confirmed successor in interest. One trade group commenter identified both benefits and risks to the proposal, including the risk presented by failing to have adequate policies and procedures in place to confirm the successor in interest.

Another industry commenter stated that it identified no risk to permitting communications between a debt collector and a confirmed successor in interest, and that it supported the Bureau's proposal to include a confirmed successor in interest in § 1006.6(a)'s definition of consumer on the basis that an individual with an ownership interest in a particular asset will desire open communication regarding the debt. A group of consumer advocates also supported proposed § 1006.6(a)(5) as ensuring consistent communications with surviving relatives regarding a mortgage on a home under Regulations X and Z. The commenter requested that, to avoid expanding communications unnecessarily to include the collection of other unrelated debt that the successor in interest may not have authority to manage, the Bureau clarify that an individual who qualifies as a confirmed successor in interest for one debt (e.g., a home mortgage) is not a confirmed successor in interest for other types of debt (e.g., a credit card debt) and that communications with such an individual must be limited to the mortgage loan that qualified the individual to be confirmed as a successor in interest.

The Bureau disagrees that it lacks authority to include a confirmed successor in interest in implementing FDCPA section 805(d)'s definition of consumer because, as the Bureau explained in the Amendments to the 2013 Mortgage Rules under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (Regulation X) and the Truth in Lending Act (Regulation Z) (2016 Servicing Final Rule),[172] and the concurrently issued FDCPA interpretive rule (2016 FDCPA Interpretive Rule),[173] the word “includes” in FDCPA section 805(d) indicates that section 805(d) is an exemplary, rather than an exhaustive, list of the categories of persons who are consumers for purposes of FDCPA section 805. The Bureau explained that FDCPA section 805 recognizes the importance of permitting debt collectors to communicate with a narrow category of persons other than the individual who owes or allegedly owes the debt who, by virtue of their relationship to that individual, may need to communicate with the debt collector in connection with the collection of the debt. The Bureau further explained that, given their relationship to the person who owes or allegedly owes the debt, confirmed successors in interest are—like the narrow categories of persons enumerated in FDCPA section 805(d)—the type of persons with whom a debt collector needs to communicate about the debt. The Bureau therefore interpreted the term consumer for purposes of FDCPA section 805 to include a confirmed successor in interest as that term is defined in Regulation X, 12 CFR 1024.31, and Regulation Z, 12 CFR 1026.2(a)(27)(ii).[174]

In response to the industry commenter's question regarding how the Bureau expects a debt collector to become aware of a successor in interest, the Bureau notes that Regulation X § 1024.38(b)(1)(vi) and comment 38(b)(1)(vi)-1 clarify that a mortgage servicer is not required to conduct a search for potential successors in interest if the mortgage servicer has not received actual notice of their existence.[175] Comment 38(b)(1)(vi)-1 further explains that a mortgage servicer may be notified of the existence of a potential successor in interest in a variety of ways. The comment provides a non-exclusive list of examples of ways in which a mortgage servicer could be notified of the existence of a potential successor in interest, including that a person could indicate that there has been a transfer of ownership or of an ownership interest in the property or that a borrower has been divorced, legally separated, or died, or a person other than a borrower could submit a loss mitigation application. The comment also explains that a mortgage servicer must maintain policies and procedures reasonably designed to ensure that the mortgage servicer can retain this information and promptly facilitate communication with potential successors in interest when a mortgage servicer is notified of their existence.[176] Nothing in this final rule is intended to Start Printed Page 76759alter the successor in interest provisions in Regulations X and Z or to impose additional requirements.

In response to the request from a group of consumer advocates for further clarification, the Bureau determines that the text of proposed § 1006.6(a)(5) was sufficiently clear that a person who meets the definition of a confirmed successor in interest under § 1006.6(a)(5) is a confirmed successor in interest with respect to a property securing a mortgage loan or a dwelling securing a closed-end consumer credit transaction as described above, and that such person is not also a confirmed successor in interest for other purposes. As indicated by § 1006.6(a)(5)'s specific citations to Regulations X and Z, a successor in interest is a person to whom an ownership interest either in a property securing a mortgage loan subject to subpart C of Regulation X, or in a dwelling securing a closed-end consumer credit transaction under Regulation Z, is transferred, provided that the transfer meets one of several enumerated conditions.[177] The Bureau therefore declines to revise the proposed regulation text as requested.

For these reasons, and consistent with the 2016 Servicing Final Rule and FDCPA Interpretive Rule, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(a)(5) as proposed with technical revisions as an interpretation of FDCPA section 805(d). Final § 1006.6(a)(5) provides that, for purposes of § 1006.6, the term consumer includes a confirmed successor in interest, as defined in Regulation X, 12 CFR 1024.31, or Regulation Z, 12 CFR 1026.2(a)(27)(ii).

6(b) Communications With a Consumer—In General

FDCPA section 805(a) restricts how a debt collector may communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt and provides certain exceptions to these prohibitions.[178] The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(b) to implement and interpret FDCPA section 805(a) to specify circumstances in which a debt collector is prohibited from communicating with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt, and to interpret FDCPA sections 806 and 808 to prohibit a debt collector from attempting to communicate with a consumer if FDCPA section 805(a) would prohibit the debt collector from communicating with the consumer.[179] For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is adopting § 1006.6(b) generally as proposed but with certain revisions designed principally to address commenters' requests for clarification in the commentary to proposed § 1006.6(b).[180]

Attempts To Communicate

The Bureau proposed to clarify in § 1006.6(b) that a debt collector is prohibited from attempting to communicate with a consumer in the same circumstances in which FDCPA section 805(a) prohibits the debt collector from communicating with the consumer. The phrase attempt to communicate [181] thus appeared throughout proposed § 1006.6(b)(1) through (4).[182] One consumer commenter supported the Bureau's proposal to include attempts to communicate within the prohibitions proposed in § 1006.6(b) on the basis that the attempt to communicate at the inconvenient place and time is, in fact, a concrete harm. A group of consumer advocates supported the addition as necessary if the Bureau were to finalize proposed § 1006.2(j) to allow limited-content messages, and as especially important to prevent debt collectors from sending limited-content messages after a cease communication request or refusal to pay from a consumer pursuant to proposed § 1006.6(c). One industry commenter did not oppose the Bureau's proposal to include attempts to communicate within the prohibitions under § 1006.6(b) but questioned the Bureau's reliance on FDCPA sections 806 and 808 to achieve that result on the basis that the Bureau would be adding to the conduct that is a violation of section 808. Instead, this commenter suggested the Bureau rely only on interpretations of FDCPA sections 805(a) and 806.

After considering the comments, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(b) as proposed to limit attempts to communicate as well as communications based on interpretations of FDCPA sections 806 and 808. FDCPA section 806 prohibits a debt collector from engaging in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt.[183] Specifically, FDCPA section 806(5) provides that causing a telephone to ring repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number is an example of conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse. FDCPA section 806(5) thus recognizes that telephone calls may have the natural consequence of harassment, oppression, or abuse if the consumer answers the telephone call or even if no conversation ensues. A consumer who hears a telephone ringing at an inconvenient time or place but who does not answer it may experience the natural consequence of harassment from the telephone ringing in much the same way as a consumer who answers and speaks to the debt collector on the telephone. For this reason, the Bureau adopts its interpretation of FDCPA section 806 as prohibiting a debt collector from attempting to communicate at times when and places where a communication would be prohibited as inconvenient.

FDCPA section 808 prohibits a debt collector from using unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt.[184] A debt collector who places a telephone call without any legitimate purpose may injure persons at the called number even if the call goes unanswered (and, therefore, is not a communication), and thus may be engaging in a prohibited unfair or unconscionable act under FDCPA section 808. Additionally, section 808 targets practices that pressure a consumer to pay debts the consumer might not otherwise have paid. A debt collector's attempts to communicate at a time when or a place where a communication would be prohibited could pressure the consumer to pay the debt to avoid further intrusions on the consumer's privacy, and the Bureau interprets such conduct as unfair or unconscionable under FDCPA section 808. In response to the industry commenter's suggestion that the Bureau's interpretation to include attempts to communicate within the prohibitions under § 1006.6(b) not rely on FDCPA section 808, the Bureau Start Printed Page 76760concludes that its interpretation is wholly consistent with FDCPA section 808's prohibition on a debt collector using unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect a debt. The section itself states, “without limiting the general application of the foregoing, the following conduct is a violation of this section,” meaning that the general principles of unfairness and unconscionability under the FDCPA are not limited by the specific examples listed in FDCPA section 808(1) through (8). Consistent with that interpretation, and pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to write rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors, the Bureau adopts its interpretation of FDCPA section 808 as prohibiting a debt collector from attempting to communicate at times when and places where a communication would be prohibited as inconvenient.

6(b)(1) Prohibitions Regarding Unusual or Inconvenient Times or Places

FDCPA section 805(a)(1) prohibits a debt collector from, among other things, communicating with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at any unusual time or place, or at a time or place that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer, subject to certain exceptions. And, as discussed further in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(b)(1)(i), FDCPA section 805(a)(1) establishes certain times that, in the absence of knowledge to the contrary, a debt collector shall assume are convenient for debt collection communications. The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(b)(1) and comment 6(b)(1)-1 to generally implement and interpret FDCPA section 805(a)(1)'s time and place restrictions, with proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1 clarifying how a debt collector knows or should know that a time or place is inconvenient based on information received from the consumer, i.e., based on a consumer's designation of that time or place as inconvenient. Proposed § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) and its commentary specifically addressed time restrictions. Proposed § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii) specifically addressed place restrictions.[185]

A number of industry commenters supported the proposed prohibitions on contacting a consumer at an inconvenient time or place as consistent with the statutory prohibitions under FDCPA section 805(a), and one industry commenter stated that consumer requests must be respected when it comes to inconvenient times to communicate. Some industry commenters requested that the Bureau generally provide further clarity regarding inconvenience. For example, one industry commenter stated that FDCPA section 805(a) and proposed § 1006.6(b)(1) are very broad and leave too much room for interpretation and requested that the Bureau make § 1006.6(b)(1) more specific.

Other industry commenters went further to suggest that the Bureau not incorporate certain language from FDCPA section 805(a) in § 1006.6(b)(1) regarding inconvenient time and place. Some such commenters took issue with the Bureau's incorporation of the statutory language in FDCPA section 805(a) regarding a time or place “which should be known to be inconvenient to the consumer,” [186] with some commenters stating that “should be known” is too high a standard, creates unreasonable expectations, is unnecessary, and should be removed from the rule. One trade group commented specifically on the “should know” standard for times and suggested that the rule should omit any reference to consumer-designated inconvenient times and rely only on statutorily presumptive convenient times. Similarly, one industry commenter suggested that, because FDCPA section 805(a)(1) provides presumptively convenient hours of contact (i.e., after 8:00 a.m. and before 9:00 p.m.), further limiting this timeframe by adopting a rule that would permit a consumer to also designate inconvenient times that a debt collector “should know” are inconvenient would unduly limit the ability of a debt collector to reach a consumer to discuss the account. Another industry commenter stated that the requirement to keep track of what times are inconvenient to a consumer will increase costs to debt collectors. With respect to place, one industry commenter stated that, given the difficulties presented by mobile technology, the Bureau should remove the reference to inconvenient place from the rule altogether.[187]

The Bureau recognizes that the statutory language under FDCPA section 805(a) is broad and, to implement the flexibility afforded under the statute, proposed to incorporate various examples through commentary to facilitate debt collector compliance. FDCPA section 805(a) specifically states that a debt collector may not communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at any unusual time or place or a time or place “known or which should be known” to be inconvenient to the consumer.[188] Given this statutory provision, the Bureau declines commenters' requests to omit the “should be known” standard from § 1006.6(b)(1). The Bureau also notes that any costs of coming into compliance to record and respect a consumer's designations of inconvenient times (or places) are not a result of the Bureau's adopting § 1006.6(b)(1), but rather arise from compliance with FDCPA section 805(a). For the same reason, the Bureau declines to rely only on the statutorily prescribed presumptively convenient times, as suggested by one commenter. Just as the presumptively convenient times are statutorily prescribed, so is the ability for a consumer to designate additional convenient (or inconvenient) times for debt collection communications.[189] Nevertheless, as explained in detail below, the Bureau is finalizing comments 6(b)(1)-1 and -2 to include various additional illustrations in response to commenters' requests for clarity. Accordingly, the Bureau adopts a flexible approach while clarifying the contours of permissible and prohibited debt collector communications with a consumer to assist debt collectors in complying with the final rule.

One trade group commenter suggested that the statutory prohibition against communicating during inconvenient times and places shift altogether from a one-size-fits-all paradigm suited for 1977 when the FDCPA was enacted to a presumption that consumers can control when they would like to be contacted. And another trade group commenter encouraged the Bureau to adopt a reasonableness standard to prevent consumers from designating all, or almost all, times as inconvenient, or to require consumers to answer certain questions to trigger the protections on Start Printed Page 76761communications at inconvenient times or places.

The statutory standard under FDCPA section 805(a)(1) is one of inconvenience. Additionally, the statute does not limit a consumer's ability to invoke the protections afforded under FDCPA section 805(a)(1) based on a reasonableness standard, and therefore it would not be appropriate for this rule to do so. Nor would such a limitation comport with the protections afforded a consumer under FDCPA section 805(c), which requires a debt collector to cease further communications with the consumer upon the consumer's written notification, or under FDCPA section 806, which prohibits a debt collector from engaging in conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt.

For all of these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing the general standard in § 1006.6(b)(1) as proposed to implement and interpret FDCPA section 805(a)(1).

Consumer Designation of Inconvenient Times or Places

The Bureau proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1 to provide general interpretations and illustrations of the time and place restrictions in § 1006.6(b)(1), including how a debt collector knows or should know that a time or place is inconvenient to a consumer. The Bureau proposed this comment to clarify one aspect of the knowledge standard for time and place, that is, that a debt collector knows or should know that a time or place is inconvenient if the consumer designates it as such. Proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1 provided general interpretations and illustrations regarding consumer designation, including that a debt collector knows or should know that a time or place is inconvenient even if the consumer does not use the word “inconvenient.” For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing comment 6(b)(1)-1 with revisions to address feedback.[190]

Information transfer. One trade group commenter read the proposal as imposing a substantial information transfer requirement on a debt collector and worried that it would require debt collectors to rely upon the previous holder of the debt for details that can be excessively subjective. Some industry commenters expressed concerns regarding the difficulty associated with a creditor transferring information about a consumer's inconvenience designations to a debt collector. Another industry commenter stated that proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1 neglected to account for the significant amounts of information that may be available to a debt collector and whether the debt collector is bound to some duty of inquiry with respect to such information.

The proposal would not have required any transfer of information regarding a consumer's inconvenience designations from a creditor or previous debt collector to the current debt collector, and nor does this final rule. However, to illustrate a situation in which a debt collector knows or should know that specific times are inconvenient to a consumer based on recent notes in a file from the creditor placing the debt for collection, the Bureau includes a new example in final comment 6(b)(1)-1.i.

Specificity of designation. As noted above, the Bureau proposed that, even if a consumer does not use the word “inconvenient” to notify the debt collector, the debt collector may nevertheless know, or should know, based on the facts and circumstances, that a time or place is inconvenient to the consumer. Some industry commenters suggested shifting the onus to the consumer to utter specific words or undertake certain actions to trigger the FDCPA's communication protections. Two industry commenters suggested that it would be reasonable to require a consumer to use some specific language to put a debt collector on notice that contact at a certain time or place is inconvenient. One trade group commenter stated that the rule should require, as a trigger to compliance, consumers to use words that reasonably identify for a debt collector the inconvenient times during which the debt collector should refrain from contact.

One consumer commenter supported the proposal not to require that the consumer utter specific words to invoke the protections under FDCPA section 805(a) on the basis that how a consumer expresses what is convenient or inconvenient should not be restricted to approved words as an excuse for a debt collector's noncompliance.

The Bureau declines to restrict how a consumer may designate a time or place as inconvenient. The statute does not prescribe any specific actions or require precise responses or utterances on behalf of the consumer to invoke these communications protections, and nor does this final rule impose such requirements. The Bureau determines that a flexible approach is necessary when it comes to communications, which by their very nature are dynamic, depend upon the specific circumstances, and differ from consumer to consumer. Such fluid communications cannot be scripted, nor can every permutation be anticipated. The Bureau therefore is finalizing its proposed interpretation of FDCPA section 805(a)(1), which refers to what is “inconvenient to the consumer,” without specifying that a consumer must designate communications as inconvenient using the word “inconvenient.”

One industry commenter stated the word “inconvenient” should not be a tool for a consumer to prevent communication with a debt collector. However, FDCPA section 805(a)(1) explicitly recognizes that communications must not occur at a time or place known or which should be known to be inconvenient to the consumer. The Bureau notes that a consumer also has the option under FDCPA section 805(c) to notify a debt collector to cease communications with the consumer altogether. Therefore, it serves not only consumers but also debt collectors for communications to occur at times and places that are convenient to the consumer, and to avoid requiring consumers to perform specific actions or require precise responses or utterances to achieve the protections under FDCPA section 805(a), lest consumers more simply resort to notifying debt collectors under FDCPA section 805(c) to cease further communication.

Some industry commenters asked the Bureau to clarify how debt collectors may appropriately determine a time or place is inconvenient if a consumer gives unclear, vague, or ambiguous instructions, or insufficient information for the debt collector to identify when or where the consumer does not want to be contacted. Some trade group commenters suggested that a debt collector be permitted to ask a consumer follow-up questions to obtain more specific information to honor the consumer's request. Two trade group commenters suggested that, unless a consumer provides readily understandable instructions as to the scope of any identified inconvenient time or place, a debt collector should be permitted to continue contacting the consumer as if no designation had been made.

The Bureau understands that a consumer's articulation of inconvenience sometimes may require further clarification. Because the standard in FDCPA section 805(a)(1) is Start Printed Page 76762based on what is “inconvenient to the consumer,” [191] the consumer is the best source of information for the debt collector to learn when is an inconvenient time or where is an inconvenient place. To clarify this point and to provide debt collectors guidance in circumstances in which the debt collector needs additional clarity or information from the consumer, the Bureau is revising comment 6(b)(1)-1 to specifically state that the debt collector may ask follow-up questions regarding whether a time or place is convenient to clarify statements by the consumer. The Bureau determines that this approach will allow consumers to exercise their right to limit communications at inconvenient times and places while decreasing uncertainty for debt collectors. Accordingly, the Bureau revises the example proposed as comment 6(b)(1)-1.i, now finalized as comment 6(b)(1)-1.ii, to illustrate such an exchange between a debt collector and a consumer.

Other industry commenters requested that the Bureau clarify how the rule applies if a consumer answers a telephone call from a debt collector, states that the consumer is “busy right now” or “cannot talk right now,” and immediately hangs up the telephone. If a debt collector does not have an opportunity to ask a consumer follow-up questions because the consumer has, for example, abruptly ended a telephone call, the standards regarding telephone call frequencies in § 1006.14(b)(2) may be instructive in assisting a debt collector in determining when the debt collector may call the consumer again.[192] Although § 1006.6(b)(1) would not require a debt collector to construe a consumer's statement that the consumer is “busy right now” or “cannot talk right now” without anything further to mean that the consumer is generally designating that time or place as inconvenient for future communications, the statement does indicate that the time or place is inconvenient for current communications.

Inconvenient places. As part of proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1, the Bureau included an example in proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1.iii to illustrate when a debt collector knows or should know that a place is inconvenient to a consumer. Proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1.iii assumed that a consumer tells a debt collector not to communicate with the consumer at school. Based on these facts, proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1.iii explained, the debt collector knows or should know that communications to the consumer at school are inconvenient and, thereafter, the debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate with the consumer at that place. The Bureau received many comments from industry asking how, in light of technology such as mobile telephones, which consumers can take with them everywhere, a debt collector could be sure to avoid contacting a consumer at an inconvenient place. Industry commenters requested that the Bureau either remove the example or revise it to include specific times or other information from the consumer that would enable the debt collector to know when the consumer is at the inconvenient place, suggesting that, without such information, the debt collector would have to make assumptions about the consumer's whereabouts.

To address these concerns, the Bureau is revising the example in comment 6(b)(1)-1.iii. Final comment 6(b)(1)-1.iii illustrates that once a debt collector knows or should know that communications to a place are inconvenient to a consumer, unless the consumer otherwise informs the debt collector that the place is no longer inconvenient, § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii) prohibits the debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate with the consumer at that place, including by sending mail to the address associated with that place and by placing calls to the landline telephone number at that place. And in response to commenters' request for further clarification regarding when a consumer is at an inconvenient place, consistent with the addition to comment 6(b)(1)-1 discussed above that a debt collector may ask follow-up questions regarding whether a time or place is convenient to clarify statements by a consumer, a debt collector may ask a consumer to identify times associated with an inconvenient place. For further discussion regarding communications or attempts to communicate at an inconvenient place, see the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii).

Duty To Inquire

The Bureau did not propose to require, but requested comment on whether to require, a debt collector to ask a consumer at the outset of all debt collection communications whether the time or place is convenient to the consumer. An academic commenter as well as a group of consumer advocates supported such a requirement, with the group of consumer advocates stating that asking a consumer whether the time or place is convenient is a best practice for telephone calls or in-person communications and requesting the Bureau adopt that approach. A number of industry commenters disagreed, stating that such a requirement would be impractical and cumbersome as part of a lengthy telephone call introduction that already requires verifying the consumer's identity and providing various disclosures. One trade group commenter suggested that such a long introduction would annoy the consumer, and another stated that the natural reaction to receiving a call from an unknown individual who inquires whether the call is convenient would be to respond that the call is inconvenient.

The Bureau agrees that it would be impractical to require debt collectors to ask consumers at the outset of every debt collection communication whether the time or place is convenient. A debt collector, of course, is free to ask this question and may find that it is a natural question that arises as part of a communication with a consumer. However, the Bureau does not believe that such a requirement is necessary or warranted to implement FDCPA section 805(a)(1).

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing comment 6(b)(1)-1 regarding a consumer's designation of an inconvenient time or place to provide that a debt collector knows or should know that a time or place is inconvenient to a consumer if the consumer uses the word “inconvenient” to notify the debt collector. In addition, depending on the facts and circumstances, the debt collector knows or should know that a time or place is inconvenient even if the consumer does not specifically state to the debt collector that a time or place is “inconvenient.” Final comment 6(b)(1)-1 also provides that a debt collector may ask follow-up questions regarding whether a time or place is convenient to clarify statements by the consumer and, as discussed above, includes three illustrative examples.

Consumer-Initiated Communications at Previously Designated Inconvenient Times or Places

As part of proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1, the Bureau proposed to clarify that, if a consumer initiates a communication with a debt collector at a time or from a place that the consumer previously designated as inconvenient, the debt Start Printed Page 76763collector may respond once; but thereafter, the debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate further with the consumer at that time or place until the consumer conveys that the time or place is no longer inconvenient. The Bureau also proposed two illustrative examples. The Bureau is finalizing this aspect of proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1 as comment 6(b)(1)-2, with revisions and additional examples in response to feedback as discussed below.

One consumer commenter supported the proposal's approach to permit one reply as protective of consumers and a fair compromise to debt collectors. A number of industry commenters requested clarification regarding the scope of a debt collector's one permitted reply if a consumer initiates a communication with a debt collector at a time or from a place that the consumer previously designated as inconvenient. Industry commenters suggested that, if a consumer contacts a debt collector during a time that the consumer previously designated as inconvenient, the debt collector either should be able to ask if the consumer has revoked the inconvenience designation or should be able to assume that the consumer has done so. One trade group commenter requested that the Bureau clarify whether a debt collector's unanswered call to a consumer would constitute the debt collector's one reply.

In response to commenters' suggestions, the Bureau notes that a debt collector is not prohibited from inquiring in the one permitted reply whether the consumer is revoking the inconvenient time or place designation. However, the consumer's act of simply initiating a communication does not revoke the inconvenient time or place designation. As comment 6(b)(1)-2 explains, after a debt collector's one permitted response, § 1006.6(b)(1) prohibits the debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate further with the consumer at that time or place until the consumer conveys that the time or place is no longer inconvenient, unless an exception in § 1006.6(b)(4) applies. Additionally, in response to the trade group commenter's request for further clarity, the Bureau determines that a debt collector's unanswered call does constitute the debt collector's one permitted reply as described under comment 6(b)(1)-1. However, nothing prohibits the debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate at times or places that are not inconvenient to the consumer, including to ask the consumer if the time or place previously designated by the consumer remains inconvenient.

The final rule further clarifies the scope of a debt collector's one permitted reply by specifying in final comment 6(b)(1)-2 that the debt collector's one reply must be through the same medium of communication used by the consumer to initiate the communication. For example, if a consumer sends a debt collector a text message at a time the consumer previously designated as inconvenient, the debt collector may reply once by text message; but unless the consumer provided prior consent to receive a telephone call, for example, the debt collector may not reply once by placing a telephone call to the consumer. The Bureau finds that a consumer-initiated communication is, by its nature, not inconvenient to the consumer, and that includes the medium of communication used by the consumer to initiate that communication. Because the consumer initiated the communication, the debt collector neither knows nor should know that responding to that communication through the same medium of communication is inconvenient to the consumer.[193] Additionally, if a consumer designates a period of time as inconvenient and subsequently initiates a communication with a debt collector during that time, although the debt collector may wait for the inconvenient time period to expire before contacting the consumer, final comment 6(b)(1)-2.i and .ii, discussed below, illustrate that the debt collector may respond once during the inconvenient time period on that day.

Accordingly, final comment 6(b)(1)-2 states that, if a consumer initiates a communication with a debt collector at a time or from a place that the consumer previously designated as inconvenient, the debt collector may respond once at that time or place through the same medium of communication used by the consumer.[194] After that response, § 1006.6(b)(1) prohibits the debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate further with the consumer at that time or place until the consumer conveys that the time or place is no longer inconvenient, unless an exception in § 1006.6(b)(4) applies. Comment 6(b)(1)-2 also includes four examples illustrating how a debt collector may comply with § 1006.6(b)(1) if a consumer initiates a communication with a debt collector at a time or from a place that the consumer previously designated as inconvenient, with the third example focused on websites and mobile applications, and the fourth example focused on automated replies.

The first two examples under comment 6(b)(1)-2 were proposed as comments 6(b)(1)-1.ii and .iv, respectively. The Bureau is revising these examples consistent with the discussion above that a debt collector's one permitted reply must be through the same medium of communication used by the consumer in initiating the communication, and is finalizing them as comments 6(b)(1)-2.i and .ii. These two examples illustrate a debt collector responding once through the same medium of communication used by the consumer before the expiration of the consumer's otherwise inconvenient time or place designation.

The third example under comment 6(b)(1)-2.iii relates to websites and mobile applications. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.2(b) and (d), some industry commenters asserted that the proposed definitions of attempt to communicate and communicate or communication would include information provided to consumers who visit or navigate a debt collector's website or online portal.[195] Such information may constitute an attempt to communicate or a communication depending on its content. However, as the example in comment 6(b)(1)-2.iii illustrates, when a consumer initiates a communication by navigating a debt collector's website or using a debt collector's mobile application at a time or from a place that the consumer previously designated as inconvenient, § 1006.6(b)(1) does not prohibit the debt collector from conveying information to the consumer about the debt through the website or mobile application. Accordingly, comment 6(b)(1)-2.iii provides clarity regarding websites and mobile applications.

The final example under comment 6(b)(1)-2.iv is focused on automated replies. The Bureau received a number of comments requesting that the Bureau clarify how § 1006.6(b)(1) applies to such replies. Specifically, several Start Printed Page 76764industry commenters expressed concern regarding the circumstance in which a consumer initiates an electronic communication, such as an email or text message, with a debt collector at a time or from a place that the consumer previously designated as inconvenient, and the debt collector's system generates an automated reply to confirm receipt of the consumer's message and inform the consumer when a response from the debt collector might be expected. Some industry commenters also expressed concern over an automated reply generated in response to a consumer-initiated communication received during the presumptively inconvenient times between 9:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., local time at the consumer's location. One trade group commenter suggested model language for an automated reply that would not meet the definitions of attempt to communicate or communication under § 1006.2(b) and (d).[196]

As discussed above, the Bureau finds that a consumer-initiated communication is, by its nature, not inconvenient to the consumer and that the debt collector may respond once, including by automated reply, through the same medium of communication used by the consumer. The Bureau is adopting comment 6(b)(1)-2.iv to clarify that, if a consumer initiates a communication by sending an email message at a time or from a place that the consumer previously designated as inconvenient or that is presumptively inconvenient, the debt collector is not prohibited from responding once, such as by sending a system-generated automated email reply.[197]

6(b)(1)(i)

FDCPA section 805(a)(1) provides, in relevant part, that a debt collector may not communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at any unusual time, or at a time that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer.[198] FDCPA section 805(a)(1) specifies that, in the absence of knowledge of circumstances to the contrary, a debt collector shall assume that the convenient time for communicating with a consumer is after 8:00 a.m. and before 9:00 p.m., local time at the consumer's location.

The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) to implement and interpret FDCPA section 805(a)(1)'s prohibition regarding unusual or inconvenient times.[199] The Bureau interpreted the language in FDCPA section 805(a)(1) that a debt collector shall assume that the convenient time for communicating with a consumer is after 8:00 a.m. and before 9:00 p.m. to mean that a time before 8:00 a.m. and after 9:00 p.m. local time at the consumer's location is inconvenient, unless the debt collector has knowledge of circumstances to the contrary. Comments regarding proposed § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) fell into three main categories, as discussed below.

Existing Violations of FDCPA Section 805(a)(1)

Several individual consumers noted that, notwithstanding the prohibition in FDCPA section 805(a)(1), they have received hateful and threatening debt collection calls before 8:00 a.m., after 9:00 p.m., and during all hours of the night. The Bureau notes that the FDCPA imposes a specific presumption against communicating with a consumer before 8:00 a.m. and after 9:00 p.m., local time at the consumer's location regardless of the content of the communication.[200] In the absence of knowledge of circumstances to the contrary, a debt collector's communications with a consumer before 8:00 a.m. and after 9:00 p.m. are inconvenient to the consumer and are prohibited under FDCPA section 805(a)(1) and final § 1006.6(b)(1)(i). Depending on the facts and circumstances, communications made at prohibited times in violation of § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) may also violate other provisions of the FDCPA or this final rule.

Inconvenient Times and Electronic Communications

The Bureau received several comments on the general application of § 1006.6(b)(1)(i)'s inconvenient time prohibition to electronic communications. A group of State Attorneys General supported applying § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) to electronic communications and agreed with the proposal to extend the FDCPA's limitation on permissible hours of communications to newer communication media including, but not limited to, email, text messaging, and social media. Many industry commenters, in contrast, expressed concern about the proposed approach. One industry commenter supported permitting debt collector communications by telephone call or text message during the presumptively convenient hours between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m., local time, as fair and reasonable, but requested that the Bureau exempt email and text messages from consumer-designated inconvenient time and place restrictions. Several industry commenters stated that, although a debt collector's telephone calls to a consumer should adhere to the inconvenient time restrictions, the Bureau should except email or text messages or both from any time restrictions, thereby permitting electronic messages to be sent by a debt collector to a consumer at any time. A number of these commenters suggested that electronic communications such as email messages are distinct in nature from other media of communication, as are the ways in which a consumer may determine whether to engage with such communications. One industry commenter suggested that requiring electronic messages to adhere to inconvenient time restrictions puts debt collectors at a competitive disadvantage because no other industry has such a restriction, while another industry commenter suggested that, because internet service providers limit the frequency of outgoing email messages, such communications should not be subject to any further restrictions, including the inconvenient time restrictions under proposed § 1006.6(b)(1)(i). This same industry commenter also suggested that the Bureau exclude email messages from the definition of “communication” in proposed § 1006.6(b)(1)(i). One trade group commenter suggested that the unsubscribe instructions in proposed § 1006.6(e) would sufficiently protect consumers, such that subjecting electronic communications to inconvenient time restrictions was unnecessary. Some industry commenters stated that the difficulty lies with technology and the inability of their software to time-stamp and track electronic communications, and with the associated costs of having to do so.Start Printed Page 76765

The statutory requirement under FDCPA section 805(a)(1) broadly applies to all debt collection communications with a consumer, without distinguishing between communication media.[201] Consistent with the statute, the Bureau interprets FDCPA section 805(a)(1) to apply § 1006.6(b)(1)(i)'s inconvenient time prohibition to electronic communications and not just to telephone calls, for example, with the consumer.

In response to industry comments suggesting that the costs associated with compliance will be burdensome, although this final rule does not require electronic communications by debt collectors, it provides clarity for a debt collector who elects to send electronic communications to a consumer.

Decedent Debt Waiting Period

Although the Bureau did not propose to define a period after a consumer's death as an inconvenient time for communicating about the deceased consumer's debt with surviving spouses or parents (in the case of deceased minor consumers) or persons acting as executors, administrators, or personal representatives of a deceased consumer's estate, the Bureau requested comment on this topic.[202] The FTC declined to adopt such a waiting period in its Policy Statement on Decedent Debt because it did not have a sufficient record to establish the necessity of a waiting period or the optimal length of such a period. While the Bureau received some comments on this issue, it likewise does not have a sufficient basis to determine whether to impose such a waiting period or the proper duration of such a waiting period. Therefore, the Bureau declines to include a waiting period in the final rule.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) as proposed to provide that, except as provided in § 1006.6(b)(4), a debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at any unusual time, or at a time that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer. In the absence of the debt collector's knowledge of circumstances to the contrary, a time before 8:00 a.m. and after 9:00 p.m. local time at the consumer's location is inconvenient.

The Bureau proposed comment 6(b)(1)(i)-1 to clarify that, for purposes of determining the time of an electronic communication under § 1006.6(b)(1)(i), an electronic communication occurs when the debt collector sends it, not, for example, when the consumer receives or views it. Two trade group commenters agreed with the proposed interpretation. One consumer commenter also supported it but suggested that the time of receipt by the consumer should control instead. And a group of consumer advocates supported the proposed interpretation but requested that the Bureau further clarify that “sending” does not include scheduling a message for later delivery.

The Bureau proposed the clarification in comment 6(b)(1)(i)-1 to assist debt collectors who elect to send consumers electronic communications in complying with § 1006.6(b)(1)(i). As the Bureau stated in the proposal, ambiguity exists about whether, for purposes of FDCPA section 805(a)(1), an electronic communication occurs at the time of sending by the debt collector or at the time of receipt or viewing by the consumer. A debt collector can control the time at which it chooses to send communications, whereas it often would be impossible for a debt collector to determine when a consumer receives or views an electronic communication. The Bureau determines that a bright-line rule that clarifies that an electronic communication occurs when the debt collector sends it makes it possible for a debt collector to comply with the final rule. The Bureau also clarifies that sending for purposes of comment 6(b)(1)(i)-1 does not include scheduling a message at one time for delivery at a later time. For these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing comment 6(b)(1)(i)-1 as proposed, with minor revisions.

The Bureau also proposed comment 6(b)(1)(i)-2 to provide a safe harbor and illustrate how a debt collector could comply with proposed § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) and FDCPA section 805(a)(1) if the debt collector has conflicting or ambiguous information regarding a consumer's location, such as telephone numbers with area codes located in different time zones or a telephone number with an area code and a physical address that are inconsistent. The Bureau is finalizing comment 6(b)(1)(i)-2 largely as proposed, with certain clarifications in response to comments, as discussed below.

A group of consumer advocates supported proposed comment 6(b)(1)(i)-2 as a commonsense interpretation that will protect consumers and give helpful guidance to debt collectors. One consumer advocate suggested that the better course is to require debt collectors to determine whether a telephone number is a cellular or landline telephone. One trade group commenter supported the idea of a safe harbor but suggested revising it to protect debt collectors when they use the time period during which communications would be convenient in both locations as indicated by the zip code of the residence and the area code of the telephone.

One industry commenter stated that debt collectors have no practical way of knowing the local time for a consumer at any particular point in time, and that a debt collector would be required to keep track of the consumer's whereabouts to avoid communicating at inconvenient times. One industry commenter suggested that the Bureau amend the proposed commentary to permit a debt collector to communicate with a consumer at times that are convenient in any location in which the consumer might be located, or alternatively, that the debt collector should be responsible only for the area code, address of record, and locations explicitly communicated by the consumer. Several industry commenters stated that a debt collector should be permitted to rely on the address of record or last known physical address because, as one commenter explained, telephones are portable and the area code is no longer a reliable source of the consumer's location. Specifically, one trade group commenter requested that mortgage servicers be allowed to determine call times based on the single, established billing address.

The Bureau is adopting this safe harbor to facilitate a debt collector's compliance with § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) when the debt collector has conflicting or ambiguous information regarding a consumer's location. As proposed, comment 6(b)(1)(i)-2 stated that the safe harbor would apply if the debt collector is unable to determine the consumer's location. In response to the commenter that a debt collector would be required to keep track of a consumer's whereabouts, the Bureau revises this language to clarify that the safe harbor would apply if the debt collector has conflicting or ambiguous information Start Printed Page 76766regarding the consumer's location. A debt collector is not required to determine where the consumer actually is located when communicating or attempting to communicate with the consumer and knowledge that a telephone number is associated with a mobile telephone does not, without more, create conflicting or ambiguous information. A debt collector with conflicting information may know or should know that it is inconvenient to communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer at a time outside of the presumptively convenient times (8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.) in any of the time zones in which the consumer might be located. As the Bureau explained in the proposal, some debt collectors already have adopted this approach for determining convenient times to contact a consumer if the debt collector has conflicting location information for the consumer.

This safe harbor would apply in circumstances in which the debt collector does not have knowledge of the consumer's location and can rely only on information indicating where the consumer might be located. For example, this may arise in a debt collector's initial communication with a consumer. One consumer commenter reported continually receiving calls as early as 5:00 a.m. (local time at the consumer's location) because the debt collector relied only on the consumer's telephone number area code, while ignoring information from the consumer that the consumer was in fact in a different time zone. However, once the debt collector has information about the consumer's location, for example by asking the consumer in an initial communication or being told by the consumer in a subsequent communication, the debt collector would no longer have conflicting or ambiguous information regarding the consumer's location and would not need to rely on the safe harbor provided in comment 6(b)(1)(i)-2.

As finalized, comment 6(b)(1)(i)-2 states that, under § 1006.6(b)(1)(i), in the absence of a debt collector's knowledge of circumstances to the contrary, an inconvenient time for communicating with a consumer is before 8:00 a.m. and after 9:00 p.m. local time at the consumer's location. If a debt collector has conflicting or ambiguous information regarding a consumer's location, then, in the absence of knowledge of circumstances to the contrary, the debt collector complies with § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) if the debt collector communicates or attempts to communicate with the consumer at a time that would be convenient in all of the locations at which the debt collector's information indicates the consumer might be located. Comment 6(b)(1)(i)-2 also provides two examples of how a debt collector complies with § 1006.6(b)(1)(i).

6(b)(1)(ii)

FDCPA section 805(a)(1) provides, in relevant part, that a debt collector may not communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at any unusual place, or at a place that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer.[203] As proposed, § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii) would have implemented this prohibition and generally restated the statute, with only minor changes for clarity. The Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii) as proposed.[204] Accordingly, § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii) states that except as provided in § 1006.6(b)(4), a debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at any unusual place, or at a place that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer.

Communications or Attempts To Communicate at Unusual and Inconvenient Places

The Bureau received many comments discussing the proposed approach to inconvenient places in response to proposed comment 6(b)(1)-1.iii asking how, in light of technology such as mobile telephones, which are not affixed to a particular place, a debt collector could be sure to avoid contacting a consumer at an inconvenient place.[205] With respect to unusual place, one industry commenter noted that, while the Bureau's proposal provided examples illustrating what may be considered “inconvenient” under the rule, the proposal did not provide examples illustrating what would constitute an “unusual” time or place under FDCPA section 805(a)(1). The commenter therefore requested the Bureau clarify what would be considered “unusual,” considering the extensive consumer use of mobile telephones and the mobile nature of consumers themselves. Another industry commenter suggested that the statutory language “at any unusual . . . place” be removed from § 1006.6(b)(1) based on the difficulties presented when a consumer could be at an “unusual place” (e.g., a funeral), but without knowing where the consumer is, the debt collector calls the consumer's mobile telephone.

The Bureau recognizes that mobile technology has shifted how and where communications occur and may make it more difficult for a debt collector to know where a consumer is at the precise moment when the debt collector is communicating or attempting to communicate with the consumer. In this regard, the Bureau notes that the FDCPA does not require a debt collector to track a consumer's whereabouts; it prohibits communications with a consumer at any unusual place, or a place that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer.

To further clarify how the FDCPA's prohibition regarding unusual and inconvenient places applies in the context of mobile technology, the Bureau is adopting new comment 6(b)(1)(ii)-1 to explain that some communication media, such as mailing addresses and landline telephone numbers, are associated with a place, whereas other communication media, such as email addresses and mobile telephone numbers, are not. Comment 6(b)(1)(ii)-1 provides that pursuant to § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii), a debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer through media associated with an unusual place, or with a place that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer. Unless the debt collector knows that the consumer is at an unusual place, or a place that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer, comment 6(b)(1)(ii)-1 continues, § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii) does not prohibit a debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer through communication media not associated with the unusual or inconvenient place. The Bureau is also adopting an example in new comment 6(b)(1)(ii)-1.i. The Bureau believes this approach addresses the complexities presented by mobile technology, clarifies how debt collectors may comply with FDCPA section 805(a)(1)'s prohibitions on communications with a consumer at unusual and inconvenient places, and maintains the consumer protections under FDCPA section 805(a)(1). The Bureau also reiterates that, in addition to an inconvenient place designation under § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii), a consumer may invoke an inconvenient time Start Printed Page 76767designation under § 1006.6(b)(1)(i) or a medium of communication restriction under § 1006.14(h)(1) to further control when or whether a debt collector can communicate or attempt to communicate with the consumer using mobile technology.

Additionally, as the Bureau noted in the proposal, in response to feedback received during the SBREFA process, the Bureau declined to propose an intervention under consideration that would have designated four categories of places as presumptively inconvenient.[206] Accordingly, this final rule does not designate categories of places as presumptively inconvenient. The Bureau is also not aware of confusion or concerns regarding places that are considered unusual under FDCPA section 805(a)(1). This final rule therefore implements the statutory language “at any unusual time or place” as part of final § 1006.6(b)(1) consistent with the statute and without further commentary or interpretation. To address commenter concerns, however, the Bureau is adding new comment 6(b)(1)(ii)-1 as discussed above to clarify how a debt collector may communicate through media that rely on mobile technology when a consumer may be at an unusual or inconvenient place.

6(b)(2) Prohibitions Regarding Consumer Represented by an Attorney

FDCPA section 805(a)(2) prohibits a debt collector from communicating with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt if the debt collector knows the consumer is represented by an attorney with respect to the debt and has knowledge of, or can readily ascertain, the attorney's name and address, unless the attorney fails to respond within a reasonable period of time to a communication from the debt collector or unless the attorney consents to direct communication with the consumer.[207] The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(b)(2) to implement this prohibition and generally restate the statute.[208] For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(b)(2) as proposed, with minor revisions and with one clarification in response to comments, as discussed below.

The Bureau received comments requesting four specific clarifications. First, several industry commenters requested the Bureau define what constitutes “a reasonable period of time” by, for example, specifying a certain number of days. A number of industry commenters suggested the Bureau adopt 10, 21, or 30 days as a reasonable period of time, and some commenters drew parallels to existing State debt collection laws. One such industry commenter suggested the Bureau go further and clarify that, upon expiration of a 30-day period, a debt collector may assume the attorney is not representing the consumer. Two trade group commenters suggested that attempts to contact a consumer's attorney often go unanswered by the attorney to create an FDCPA violation.

One consumer advocate suggested that the reasonable period of time depends on the circumstances and on whether the communication from the debt collector is the type of communication that requires a response from the consumer's attorney, such as a settlement offer or a request for clarification pursuant to a verification request. However, the commenter suggested that, for debt collection communications seeking simply to persuade the consumer to pay the alleged debt, the attorney would not be obliged to respond and therefore no corresponding reasonable time exists.

The Bureau declines to adopt a specific time period under § 1006.6(b)(2). As explained in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.10, the Bureau concludes that reasonableness generally depends upon the facts and circumstances surrounding a debt collector's communications with a consumer's attorney. Accordingly, the Bureau declines to specify a period of time in which a consumer's attorney must respond before a debt collector is permitted to communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer.

Second, some trade group commenters suggested the Bureau adopt a requirement that the consumer's attorney, the consumer, or both, undertake specific steps to confirm the attorney's representation of the consumer. These suggestions included that the consumer's attorney respond to a debt collector's request for confirmation of representation, with one trade group commenter specifying that the attorney's response must be between five and seven days of the request and that the attorney must enter an appearance on behalf of the consumer. Additionally, this commenter suggested the consumer also be required to provide the attorney's full contact information, name, address, telephone number and, if applicable, email address, in order to confirm the consumer is in fact represented by an attorney. Similarly, another trade group commenter suggested the Bureau adopt an approach similar under the laws of one State where a notice of attorney representation must contain certain information to be effective,[209] and that the Bureau further require that the notice list the account(s) for which the attorney is representing the consumer.

In response to these comments, the Bureau notes that FDCPA section 805(a)(2) requires only that a debt collector knows the consumer is represented by an attorney with respect to such debt and has knowledge of, or can readily ascertain, such attorney's name and address. This statutory provision does not require any further action on behalf of either the consumer's attorney or the consumer to confirm the representation and trigger the statutory protections afforded, namely that the debt collector may not communicate with the consumer in connection with the collection of any debt. The Bureau therefore declines to adopt the commenters' suggested approaches.

Third, some industry commenters requested that the Bureau clarify the effect of a consumer-initiated communication once the debt collector knows the consumer is represented by an attorney. One such commenter stated that, under such circumstances, the debt collector should be permitted to answer the consumer's questions and return the consumer's telephone call for the sole purpose of responding to that consumer-initiated communication and to also clarify whether the consumer is still represented by counsel. One industry commenter requested the Bureau clarify that a consumer can inform a debt collector that the consumer is no longer being represented by an attorney, while another industry commenter suggested that the debt collector must await a response from the attorney before communicating with the consumer.

The introductory paragraph of FDCPA section 805(a) contains exceptions for the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector and the express permission of a court of competent jurisdiction, which are implemented by the Bureau in § 1006.6(b)(4) and further discussed in that section's analysis below. In addition to the exceptions specific to FDCPA section 805(a)(2) (e.g., unless the attorney fails to respond within a reasonable period of time to a Start Printed Page 76768communication from the debt collector or unless the attorney consents to direct communication with the consumer), the general exceptions contained in FDCPA section 805(b) also function as exceptions to FDCPA section 805(a)(2). Therefore, under the FDCPA, a consumer's prior consent given directly to a debt collector permits a debt collector to communicate with a consumer that the debt collector knows is represented by an attorney. Accordingly, the Bureau is adopting new comment 6(b)(2)-1 to clarify that a consumer-initiated communication from a represented consumer constitutes the consumer's prior consent to that communication under § 1006.6(b)(4)(i), and that therefore the debt collector may respond to that consumer-initiated communication. A debt collector is not prohibited from inquiring in that response whether the consumer is still represented by an attorney; however, as comment 6(b)(2)-1 explains, the consumer's act of initiating a communication does not negate the debt collector's knowledge that the consumer is represented by an attorney and does not revoke the protections afforded the consumer under § 1006.6(b)(2). Comment 6(b)(2)-1 further provides that after the debt collector's response, the debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate further with the consumer unless the debt collector knows the consumer is not represented by an attorney with respect to the debt, either based on information from the consumer or the consumer's attorney, or an exception under § 1006.6(b)(2)(i) or (ii) or § 1006.6(b)(4) applies.

Fourth, one industry commenter requested that the Bureau clarify whether a debt collector should assume that, if an attorney represents a consumer with respect to one debt, the attorney represents the consumer with respect to future debts; in particular, the commenter expressed concern about privacy and medical debts. FDCPA section 805(a)(2) states in relevant part that “if the debt collector knows the consumer is represented by an attorney with respect to such debt.” [210] The Bureau interprets the protections afforded a consumer under FDCPA section 805(a)(2) to apply to a particular debt allegedly owed by the consumer, but not to future or other debts allegedly owed by the consumer, unless the debt collector knows that an attorney represents the consumer with respect to those debts and has knowledge of, or can readily ascertain, the attorney's name and address. Accordingly, the Bureau revises § 1006.6(b)(2) to more closely mirror the statutory language and clarify that the protections under FDCPA section 805(a)(2) apply “with respect to such debt.”

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(b)(2) as proposed, with one revision to clarify that § 1006.6(b)(2) applies per debt. Accordingly, § 1006.6(b)(2) states that, except as provided in § 1006.6(b)(4), a debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt if the debt collector knows the consumer is represented by an attorney with respect to such debt and knows, or can readily ascertain, the attorney's name and address, unless the attorney: (i) Fails to respond within a reasonable period of time to a communication from the debt collector; or (ii) consents to the debt collector's direct communication with the consumer.

6(b)(3) Prohibitions Regarding Consumer's Place of Employment

FDCPA section 805(a)(3) prohibits a debt collector from communicating with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at the consumer's place of employment if the debt collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer's employer prohibits the consumer from receiving such communication.[211] The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(b)(3) to implement this prohibition and generally restate the statute.[212] For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(b)(3) as proposed.

Many consumers commented on the disruptive effects of debt collection calls to the workplace. Many commenters described these calls as harassing and disruptive, while many more consumers stated that frequent debt collection calls to the workplace have threatened their employment or led to them being fired, thus making repayment of the allegedly owed debt more unlikely. Some consumer and consumer advocate commenters explained that these calls are an unwelcome distraction that could jeopardize a consumer's ability to pay the debt and that interrupt the work not only of the consumer who allegedly owes the debt, but of others, including co-workers who may be responsible for answering incoming telephone calls to the workplace and employers. Other consumer commenters particularly objected to debt collectors calling and leaving messages with employers as placing undue pressure on employees because of the risk of being penalized by the employer.[213]

Consistent with these consumer comments, many consumer advocate commenters requested that the Bureau ban debt collectors from communicating or attempting to communicate with consumers at the workplace altogether. Alternatively, they recommended that the Bureau prohibit debt collectors from calling or leaving messages with employers at the workplace. One group of consumer advocates requested that the Bureau clarify that, under FDCPA section 805(a)(3) and § 1006.6(b)(3), a debt collector knows or has reason to know that an employer prohibits a consumer from receiving communications in connection with the collection of any debt at the workplace if the consumer asks the debt collector not to contact the consumer at work. And a group of State Attorneys General recommended that the Bureau prohibit a debt collector from calling a consumer's place of employment if the debt collector reliably learns, in any way, that the consumer's employer prohibits debt collection calls.

A number of industry commenters agreed that a debt collector should be expected to honor a consumer's request to stop contacting the consumer at the workplace, while generally requesting that the Bureau further clarify when a debt collector knows or has reason to know that a consumer's employer prohibits the consumer from receiving debt collection communications at the workplace. Many industry commenters suggested that a debt collector should not be responsible for having to proactively track and record, for all present and future consumers, which employers do or do not prohibit such communications, and that such a requirement for debt collectors to cross-reference their files would be unreasonable. One industry commenter explained that a communication from one consumer suggesting that the employer prohibits communication at work does not necessarily apply to all employees, as certain managers or supervisors may restrict such calls while the employer, as a matter of policy, may not. Accordingly, one industry commenter requested the Start Printed Page 76769Bureau to clarify that an instruction from a consumer or employer to a debt collector to cease contacting a consumer through an employer-provided email address or telephone number is effective only as to that specific consumer and would not be imputed to the entirety of the employer's workforce.

Recognizing that a debt collection communication may cause problems for a consumer in the workplace, two industry commenters suggested that it would be reasonable to require a consumer to use specific language to put a debt collector on notice. One industry commenter explained that, because FDCPA section 805(a)(3)'s knowledge standard is difficult to fulfill, all a consumer needs to do is give notice to a debt collector that the consumer does not want telephone calls or email messages at a physical place of work or on a physical telephone owned and managed by the company.

In addition to the unusual and inconvenient time and place protections delineated under FDCPA section 805(a)(1), Congress separately provided consumers with the workplace protections afforded under FDCPA section 805(a)(3). Accordingly, the Bureau implements this prohibition and generally restates the statute in final § 1006.6(b)(3). This provision states that, except as provided in § 1006.6(b)(4), a debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at the consumer's place of employment, if the debt collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer's employer prohibits the consumer from receiving such communication.

As described by many consumer commenters, the Bureau recognizes the unique consumer harm presented by debt collection communications at a consumer's place of employment, including possible or actual termination of employment. Although some consumer group commenters requested that the Bureau ban all workplace telephone calls or all workplace communications generally, the Bureau declines to do so because FDCPA section 805(a)(3) prohibits a debt collector from communicating with a consumer at the consumer's place of employment only if the debt collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer's employer prohibits the consumer from receiving such communication.[214]

In addition, consistent with the Bureau's interpretation regarding a consumer's designation of a time or place as inconvenient, as explained above,[215] the Bureau concludes that a consumer need not undertake specific actions or utter specific words to be afforded the statutory protections provided under FDCPA section 805(a)(3). The statute does not prescribe any specific actions or require precise responses or utterances on behalf of the consumer to invoke the workplace communications protections, and nor does this final rule impose such requirements. Even if a consumer does not precisely state that the employer prohibits the consumer from receiving debt collection communications at the workplace, the debt collector nevertheless may know or have reason to know, based on the facts and circumstances, that the employer prohibits such communications. Accordingly, the Bureau is finalizing revised comment 6(b)(3)-1 to provide that a debt collector knows or has reason to know that a consumer's employer prohibits the consumer from receiving such communication if, for example, the consumer tells the debt collector that the consumer cannot take personal calls at work. The debt collector may ask follow-up questions regarding the employer's prohibitions or limitations on contacting the consumer at the place of employment to clarify statements by the consumer.[216]

Once the debt collector knows or has reason to know of this limitation, the debt collector is prohibited from communicating or attempting to communicate with the consumer at the workplace by, for example, by mailing a letter to the consumer's workplace address or calling the consumer's work landline.

In response to those commenters suggesting that a debt collector would be required to track which employers prohibit their employees from receiving debt collection communications at the workplace, this final rule imposes no such requirement. The Bureau is adopting § 1006.6(b)(3) to implement the prohibition contained in FDCPA section 805(a)(3) and to restate the statute.

The Bureau also requested comment on whether additional clarification would be useful with respect to a debt collector's communications or attempts to communicate with a consumer while at work, for example, on a consumer's personal mobile telephone or portable electronic device. One consumer commented that, because many people use their mobile telephones for work and personal use, it would be extremely disruptive for a debt collector to send text messages during work hours while a consumer is using that mobile telephone for work purposes. Another consumer commented that the Bureau should clarify under § 1006.6(b)(3) that communications at the workplace include communications through a device or channel owned by an employer and through a personal device during a consumer's known work hours. A consumer advocate that suggested the Bureau adopt a bright-line rule against all debt collection communications through any medium with a consumer at the workplace also suggested that such a rule should extend to the use of mobile telephones, as long as the debt collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer is at work. The commenter explained that the debt collector may ask the consumer to inform the debt collector which hours the consumer is at work so the debt collector may avoid those times, and if the consumer states specific hours and times, the debt collector must respect those instructions. A group of consumer advocates suggested that the prohibition under proposed § 1006.6(b)(3) should also prohibit a debt collector from directing communications, including by voice or text message, to any personal mobile device during any known working hours. One local government commenter suggested that, consistent with proposed § 1006.22(f)(3), a debt collector should not be permitted to send mail to a consumer's place of employment or call, text, or leave voicemails on a consumer's work telephone without the consumer's prior consent.

Industry commenters generally requested clarity regarding debt collection communications with a consumer to a personal mobile Start Printed Page 76770telephone or device while the consumer is at work. One industry commenter suggested that, because it is within the consumer's discretion whether to answer the call, telephone calls to a consumer's personal mobile telephone number should not be considered a communication at the consumer's place of employment. One trade group commenter suggested that the Bureau adopt a safe harbor to exempt from liability, absent a consumer's designation of a specified time as inconvenient or medium of communication restriction, a debt collector who unknowingly reaches a consumer at the place of employment if attempting to communicate with the consumer through a mobile telephone or other permissible communication media, for example, an email message to the consumer's personal email account. Alternatively, one trade group commenter suggested that a consumer may prefer to communicate privately during work hours through a personal device instead of during non-work hours when the consumer may prefer to focus on family or other pursuits.

As discussed above with respect to unusual and inconvenient places under FDCPA section 805(a)(1) and final comment 6(b)(1)(ii)-1,[217] the Bureau similarly recognizes here the complexities presented by mobile technology while debt collectors aim to comply with the statutory requirement under FDCPA section 805(a)(3) that a debt collector not communicate with a consumer at the consumer's place of employment if the debt collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer's employer prohibits the consumer from receiving such communication.

Final comment 6(b)(3)-1, discussed above, provides that a debt collector may ask follow-up questions regarding the employer's prohibitions or limitations on contacting the consumer at the place of employment to clarify statements by the consumer. For example, a debt collector may ask a consumer to identify times when the consumer is at the place of employment. As explained in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(b)(1)(ii), some communication media are associated with a place.[218] At the consumer's place of employment, such media may include, for example, mail to the consumer's place of employment and calls to the consumer's work landline or employer-provided mobile telephone number. Consistent with the Bureau's approach in comment 6(b)(1)(ii)-1, a debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer through media associated with the consumer's place of employment if, pursuant to § 1006.6(b)(3), the debt collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer's employer prohibits the consumer from receiving such communication. For other communication media not associated with the consumer's place of employment, such as a personal email address or personal mobile telephone number, § 1006.6(b)(3) does not prohibit a debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer through such media unless the debt collector knows that the consumer is at the place of employment. Therefore, absent information regarding when the consumer is at the place of employment or other communication restriction,[219] the debt collector does not violate § 1006.6(b)(3) by placing a telephone call or sending an electronic communication to the consumer's personal mobile telephone number or portable electronic device, even if the consumer receives or views the communication while at the place of employment.

6(b)(4) Exceptions

FDCPA section 805(a) provides certain exceptions to its limitations on a debt collector's communications with a consumer. The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(b)(4) to implement and interpret the exceptions in FDCPA section 805(a).[220] For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(b)(4) as proposed.

6(b)(4)(i)

The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) to implement the introductory language in FDCPA section 805(a) that, in relevant part, sets forth the exception for the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector. Proposed § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) generally mirrored the statute, except that proposed § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) interpreted FDCPA section 805(a) to require that the consumer's prior consent must be given during a communication that would not violate proposed § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3), i.e., the prohibitions on communications with a consumer at unusual or inconvenient times or places, communications with a consumer represented by an attorney, and communications at the consumer's place of employment. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) as proposed.

A group of consumer advocates supported the Bureau's proposed interpretation of FDCPA section 805(a) to require that a consumer's prior consent must be given during a communication that would not violate proposed § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3) as an important additional protection for consumers.

The Bureau is adopting its interpretation of FDCPA section 805(a) to require that the consumer's prior consent must be given during a communication that would not violate § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3). For example, ordinarily a debt collector could not place a telephone call to a consumer at midnight and obtain the consumer's prior consent for future debt collection communications at that time. The Bureau interprets a consumer's prior consent to be consent obtained in the absence of conduct that would compromise or eliminate a consumer's ability to freely choose whether to consent. A communication that would violate § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3) (e.g., consent obtained from a consumer at an unusual or inconvenient time or place) is likely to compromise or eliminate a consumer's ability to freely choose whether to consent. By prohibiting prior consent purported to be obtained during a communication that would violate § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3), the Bureau does not intend to suggest that prior consent obtained in other unlawful ways would comply with FDCPA section 805(a). Accordingly, the Bureau is adopting § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) as proposed to provide that the prohibitions in § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3) do not apply when a debt collector communicates or attempts to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt with the prior consent of the consumer, given directly to the debt collector during a communication that does not violate § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3).

The Bureau also proposed comment 6(b)(4)(i)-1 to clarify the meaning of prior consent. Proposed comment 6(b)(4)(i)-1 explained that, if a debt collector learns during a communication that the debt collector is communicating with a consumer at an inconvenient time or place, the debt collector cannot during that communication ask the consumer to consent to the continuation of that debt collection communication. The Bureau proposed this comment as an interpretation of the language in FDCPA section 805(a) that consent must be “prior” and therefore given in Start Printed Page 76771advance of a communication that otherwise would violate proposed § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3). For the reasons stated below, the Bureau is finalizing comment 6(b)(4)(i)-1 largely as proposed, with minor revisions.

One industry commenter opposed this proposed interpretation on the basis that it takes away a consumer's ability to freely choose to continue the communication and requested that the Bureau instead prohibit a debt collector from continuing or forcing the consumer to communicate if the time or place is considered inconvenient. Another industry commenter requested that the Bureau clarify whether a debt collector could ask the consumer whether the time or communication medium is inconvenient, and if so, whether the consumer prefers another time or communication medium.

The Bureau is finalizing comment 6(b)(4)(i)-1 largely as proposed, with minor revisions. The Bureau is adopting its proposed interpretation that prior consent must be given in advance of a communication that otherwise would violate § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3), because consent that satisfies FDCPA section 805(a) must be “prior.” Additionally, permitting a debt collector to ask a consumer to consent to a communication once the debt collector knows or should know the communication is occurring, for example, at an inconvenient time or place, would undermine the very protection guaranteed to the consumer under FDCPA section 805(a)(1). Therefore, final comment 6(b)(4)(i)-1 clarifies that the debt collector would be prohibited from asking the consumer to consent to the continuation of that inconvenient communication. The comment clarifies, however, that a debt collector may ask the consumer during that communication what time or place would be convenient. Accordingly, final comment 6(b)(4)(i)-1 states that § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) provides, in part, that the prohibitions in § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3) on a debt collector communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt do not apply if the debt collector communicates or attempts to communicate with the prior consent of the consumer. If the debt collector learns during a communication that the debt collector is communicating with the consumer at an inconvenient time or place, for example, the debt collector may ask the consumer during that communication what time or place would be convenient. However, § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) prohibits the debt collector from asking the consumer to consent to the continuation of that inconvenient communication.

Additionally, consistent with the introductory language in FDCPA section 805(a), the Bureau proposed comment 6(b)(4)(i)-2 to restate the rule that the prior consent of the consumer must be given directly to the debt collector, and to explain that a debt collector cannot rely on the prior consent of the consumer given to the original creditor or to a previous debt collector. The Bureau proposed this comment to implement the statutory requirement in FDCPA section 805(a) that the prior consent of the consumer be given directly to the debt collector. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing comment 6(b)(4)(i)-2 largely as proposed.

A consumer commenter supported the proposal and stated that prior consent should not be transferred along with an account, while one trade group commenter suggested that consumer consent given to the creditor should be passed to a debt collector hired by that creditor.

The Bureau is adopting comment 6(b)(4)(i)-2 as proposed, with minor revisions. A debt collector cannot rely on the prior consent of the consumer given to a creditor or to a previous debt collector because such prior consent is not given “directly” to the debt collector, as FDCPA section 805(a) expressly requires. This interpretation is also consistent with the FDCPA's legislative history.[221] Accordingly, comment 6(b)(4)(i)-2 states that § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) requires the prior consent of the consumer to be given directly to the debt collector. For example, a debt collector cannot rely on the prior consent of the consumer given to a creditor or to a previous debt collector.

6(b)(4)(ii)

The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(b)(4)(ii) to implement the introductory language in FDCPA section 805(a) that, in relevant part, sets forth the exception for the express permission of a court of competent jurisdiction. As proposed, § 1006.6(b)(4)(ii) generally restated the statute, with only minor wording and organizational changes for clarity. The Bureau received no comments on proposed § 1006.6(b)(4)(ii) and is finalizing it as proposed. Accordingly, final § 1006.6(b)(4)(ii) provides that the prohibitions in § 1006.6(b)(1) through (3) do not apply when a debt collector communicates or attempts to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt with the express permission of a court of competent jurisdiction.

6(c) Communications With a Consumer—After Refusal To Pay or Cease Communication Notice

FDCPA section 805(c) provides that, subject to certain exceptions, if a consumer notifies a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay a debt or that the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer, the debt collector shall not communicate further with the consumer with respect to such debt.[222] The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(c) to implement and interpret FDCPA section 805(c) and pursuant to the Bureau's authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(c) largely as proposed.

6(c)(1) Prohibition

The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(c)(1) to implement FDCPA section 805(c)'s cease communication provision and generally restate the statute, with only minor changes for clarity. Proposed § 1006.6(c)(1) stated that, except as provided in proposed § 1006.6(c)(2), a debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate further with a consumer with respect to a debt if the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing that: (i) The consumer refuses to pay the debt; or (ii) the consumer wants the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer.[223] For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(c)(1) largely as proposed, with non-Start Printed Page 76772substantive revisions to more closely mirror the statutory language.

Many consumers commented that a debt collector should be required to obey a consumer's oral request that the debt collector stop calling. Consistent with these consumer comments, one commenter that represents consumers cited a survey by a consumer advocate suggesting that the majority of consumers that asked a debt collector to stop calling were subsequently contacted by the debt collector. This commenter also suggested that the Bureau should require debt collectors to obey consumers' oral requests to stop calling.

A group of consumer advocates generally agreed that a debt collector should be required to stop contacting a consumer upon the consumer's oral request at any time. Other groups of consumer advocates requested that the Bureau clarify that “stop calling” requests can be made orally and should apply to all calls from a debt collector, unless a consumer asks to stop calls to one telephone number only. Some consumer advocates suggested that a consumer's oral request that the debt collector simply “stop calling” or a text message to the debt collector to “stop” should require the debt collector to discontinue contact with the consumer. One consumer advocate explained that, particularly for vulnerable consumers who may have limited literacy or language proficiency, making a request in writing can be burdensome.

FDCPA section 805(c) states that, if a consumer notifies a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay a debt or that the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer, the debt collector shall not communicate further with the consumer with respect to such debt unless certain exceptions apply. Because the writing requirement proposed in § 1006.6(c)(1) was intended to implement the language in FDCPA section 805(c) that a consumer notify a debt collector in writing, the Bureau is finalizing it as proposed.

As part of this final rule, however, the Bureau also is finalizing § 1006.14(h)(1), which prohibits a debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate with a person through a medium of communication if the person has requested that the debt collector not use that medium to communicate with the person.[224] Therefore, even if a consumer does not notify a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay a debt or wishes the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer as required under § 1006.6(c)(1), the consumer's oral request that the debt collector “stop calling,” for example, would constitute a request that the debt collector not use that medium of communication (e.g., telephone calls) to communicate with the consumer, and, consistent with § 1006.14(h)(1), the debt collector would thereafter be prohibited from placing telephone calls to the consumer.

The Bureau proposed comment 6(c)(1)-1 to implement FDCPA section 805(c)'s provision that, if the consumer's cease communication request is made by mail, the notification is complete upon receipt by the debt collector.[225] The Bureau proposed to apply this standard to all written or electronic forms of a consumer's cease communication request. Proposed comment 6(c)(1)-1 thus provided that if, pursuant to § 1006.6(c)(1), a consumer notifies a debt collector in writing or electronically using a medium of electronic communication through which a debt collector accepts electronic communications from consumers that the consumer either refuses to pay a debt or wants the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer, notification is complete upon the debt collector's receipt of that information.[226]

The Bureau requested comment on whether a debt collector should be afforded a certain period of time to update its systems to reflect a consumer's cease communication request even after the notification is received, and, if so, how long. One academic commenter opposed, without explanation, the creation of any grace period for a debt collector to update records when a consumer sends a cease communication request.

Industry commenters generally supported affording a debt collector a certain period of time to update its systems to reflect a consumer's cease communication request, though they differed in their specific recommendations. One trade group commenter suggested no less than two business days, because the immediacy of electronic communications makes it commercially impractical for debt collectors to update their records and comply with a consumer's cease communication request in real time. One industry commenter suggested that, for notification by letter, email, or text message, a timeframe of 72 hours from the next business day that the notification was received should be given, while another industry commenter suggested three business days from the date of receipt. Similarly, one trade group commenter suggested that a debt collector is deemed to have notice three days after receipt of the request. One trade group commenter suggested that, because electronic communications may be filtered and quarantined before actually being released into the debt collector's virtual environment, a certain amount of time, for example, a three-to-five-day grace period, should be afforded a debt collector to “receive” the electronic cease communication request and update its internal reporting systems to reflect it. Two industry commenters suggested that debt collectors should be required to send an acknowledgement and acceptance correspondence to the consumer within five days of receipt of a cease communication request. Another industry commenter suggested that, consistent with the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003,[227] the Bureau should adopt a ten-business day safe harbor given debt collectors' legitimate business and operational reasons. One industry commenter suggested that cease communication requests should be treated as received upon processing, as long as the debt collector has reasonable procedures for processing them.

The Bureau recognizes that any maximum period of time afforded a debt collector to update its systems to reflect a cease communication request must be short enough to protect consumers from unwanted communications, but long enough for compliance to be practical. Given the disparate periods of time suggested by commenters and the different methods by which a written or electronic cease communication request may be made by a consumer, this final rule does not specify the period of time afforded a debt collector to update its systems to reflect a cease communication request. However, depending upon the circumstances, FDCPA section 813(c)'s bona fide error defense to civil liability may apply if, notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error, a debt collector communicates or attempts to communicate with a consumer after Start Printed Page 76773receiving, but before processing, a cease communication request. For example, if a debt collector who schedules an email message to be sent to a consumer subsequently receives a cease communication request by email but sends the previously scheduled email message to the consumer before the request can be processed (notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures to avoid such an error), the debt collector may be entitled to a bona fide error defense to civil liability under FDCPA section 813(c).[228]

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing comment 6(c)(1)-1 as proposed, and including a new example in comment 6(c)(1)-1.i to illustrate a consumer's cease communication request made by mail being complete upon receipt by a debt collector.

The Bureau proposed comment 6(c)(1)-2 to codify its interpretation of the E-SIGN Act enabling a consumer to satisfy, through an electronic request, FDCPA section 805(c)'s requirement that the consumer's notification be in writing. The Bureau proposed to interpret the applicability of the E-SIGN Act to a consumer electronically notifying a debt collector that the consumer refuses to pay a debt or wants the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer.[229] For the reasons stated below, the Bureau is finalizing comment 6(c)(1)-2 as proposed.

A group of consumer advocates supported proposed comment 6(c)(1)-2 as entirely consistent with the E-SIGN Act and stated that the Bureau's interpretation will make it easier for consumers to access the protections of § 1006.6(c). One local government commenter supported the Bureau's proposal to interpret the writing requirement in FDCPA section 805(c) to include email messages but expressed concern with the proposed approach that a debt collector would be required to give legal effect to a consumer's notification submitted electronically only if the debt collector generally chose to accept electronic communications from consumers. The commenter suggested that the Bureau require a debt collector to accept email communications from a consumer regarding communication preferences. Another local government commenter requested that the Bureau mandate that consumers be permitted to make cease communication requests using any communication medium that the debt collector either has used to communicate with the consumer or has invited the consumer to use to communicate with the debt collector. This commenter stated that a cease communication request submitted by email, text message, or through a debt collector's website should be treated as a written communication for purposes of § 1006.6(c)(1).

The E-SIGN Act could affect whether a consumer satisfies the requirement in FDCPA section 805(c) that a cease communication request be “in writing.” Section 101(a)(1) of the E-SIGN Act generally provides that a record relating to a transaction in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce may not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form.[230] However, section 101(b)(2) of the E-SIGN Act does not require any person to agree to use or accept electronic records or electronic signatures, other than a governmental agency with respect to a record other than a contract to which it is a party.[231] Section 104(b)(1)(A) of the E-SIGN Act provides authority for a Federal agency with rulemaking authority under a statute to interpret by regulation the application of E-SIGN Act section 101 to that statute.[232]

The Bureau interprets the applicability of the E-SIGN Act as it relates to FDCPA section 805(c)'s requirement that a cease communication request be in writing. Specifically, the Bureau interprets FDCPA section 805(c)'s writing requirement as being satisfied when a consumer makes a cease communication request using a medium of electronic communication through which a debt collector accepts electronic communications from consumers, such as email messages or a website portal.[233] Thus, consistent with the Bureau's interpretation of the E-SIGN Act, pursuant to § 1006.6(c)(1), a debt collector is required to give legal effect to a consumer's electronic cease communication request if the debt collector generally accepts electronic communications from consumers. The Bureau adopts this interpretation to harmonize FDCPA section 805(c)'s writing requirement with the E-SIGN Act. Additionally, because the consumer may only use a medium of electronic communication through which a debt collector accepts electronic communications from consumers, section 101(b) of the E-SIGN Act is not contravened.

One trade group commenter suggested that the Bureau permit a debt collector to require a consumer to send an electronic cease communication request only to portals and email addresses designated by the debt collector. A group of consumer advocates requested the Bureau to clarify that a debt collector should be deemed to accept electronic cease communication requests from consumers through any non-public-facing medium listed on the debt collector's website or listed in any of the debt collector's outgoing communications to consumers.

Nothing in § 1006.6(c)(1) prohibits a debt collector from requesting a consumer to send an electronic cease communication request through online portals or to email addresses designated by the debt collector. As debt collectors likely already do for cease communication requests received by mail, debt collectors should maintain procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any errors in receiving such requests electronically. The final rule's prohibitions on harassing, deceptive, and unfair practices in §§ 1006.14, 1006.18, and 1006.22 may address many of the harms that commenters may have been concerned with, such as a debt collector intentionally ignoring a consumer's cease communication request received through an online portal or to an email address not designated by the debt collector for receiving such notifications.Start Printed Page 76774

One commenter asked what a debt collector should do if the debt collector receives a cease communication request after communicating with a consumer but before providing the consumer a validation notice pursuant to FDCPA section 809(a).[234] As the commenter explained, FDCPA section 809(a) generally requires a debt collector to send a consumer a validation notice within five days after the initial communication with the consumer (unless the validation was provided in the initial communication), and it is unclear what the debt collector should do if the consumer asks to cease communication before the validation notice is sent. To the extent any conflict exists between FDCPA sections 805(c) and 809(a), the Bureau notes that the conflict is statutory and not a result of this final rule. Nevertheless, the Bureau believes that such circumstances may be rare in practice because many debt collectors provide the validation notice in the initial communication as permitted under FDCPA section 809(a). And, to the extent that the validation notice is not provided in the initial communication, many validation notices will have been prepared for sending or sent before a debt collector receives and processes any such cease communication request.[235] The Bureau is not aware of any such conflict causing significant issues or consumer harms at this time. Accordingly, the Bureau will monitor this issue for any potential consumer harm or compliance concerns and revisit at a later time if needed.

6(c)(2) Exceptions

FDCPA section 805(c) provides exceptions to the cease communication provision. The exceptions allow a debt collector to communicate with a consumer even after a cease communication request: (1) To advise the consumer that the debt collector's further efforts are being terminated; (2) to notify the consumer that the debt collector or creditor may invoke specified remedies which are ordinarily invoked by such debt collector or creditor; or (3) where applicable, to notify the consumer that the debt collector or creditor intends to invoke a specified remedy.[236] The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(c)(2) to implement these exceptions and generally restate the statute, with only minor changes for clarity. The Bureau proposed comment 6(c)(2)-1 to clarify that, consistent with the 2016 Servicing Final Rule [237] and the concurrently issued 2016 FDCPA Interpretive Rule,[238] the Bureau interprets the written early intervention notice required under Regulation X [239] as falling within the cease communication exceptions in FDCPA section 805(c)(2) and (3) (proposed as § 1006.6(c)(2)(ii) and (iii)).[240]

The Bureau received no comments on proposed § 1006.6(c)(2) or on proposed comment 6(c)(2)-1 and therefore is finalizing them as proposed, with minor non-substantive edits. Relatedly, one industry commenter requested that the Bureau clarify whether periodic statements for residential mortgage loans required under Regulation Z, 12 CFR 1026.41(a) are exempt under FDCPA section 805(c)(2) and (3). The Bureau previously addressed this question in its 2013 bulletin providing implementation guidance for certain mortgage servicing rules,[241] in which the Bureau determined that, notwithstanding a consumer's cease communication request, a mortgage servicer who is subject to the FDCPA with respect to a mortgage loan would not be liable under the FDCPA for complying with certain servicing rule provisions, including requirements to provide a borrower with disclosures regarding the forced placement of hazard insurance,[242] a disclosure regarding an adjustable-rate mortgage's initial interest rate adjustment,[243] and a periodic statement for each billing cycle.[244] The Bureau explained that these disclosures are specifically mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act,[245] which makes no mention of their potential cessation under the FDCPA and presents a more recent and specific statement of legislative intent regarding these disclosures than does the FDCPA. The Bureau also explained that these notices provide useful information to consumers regardless of their collection status. The Bureau is adopting this relevant guidance in new comment 6(c)(2)-2 for mortgage servicers subject to the FDCPA with respect to a mortgage loan.

6(d) Communications With Third Parties

FDCPA section 805(b) prohibits a debt collector from communicating, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than the consumer [246] or certain other persons.[247] FDCPA section 805(b) also identifies certain exceptions to this prohibition. The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(d)(1) and (2), respectively, to implement FDCPA section 805(b)'s general prohibition against communicating with third parties and the exceptions to that prohibition. Additionally, the Bureau proposed § 1006.6(d)(3) to specify, for purposes of FDCPA section 813(c), procedures that are reasonably adapted to avoid an error in sending an email or text message that would result in a violation of FDCPA section 805(b). The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(d) pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to write rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors.

6(d)(1) Prohibitions

With limited exceptions, FDCPA section 805(b) prohibits a debt collector from communicating, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than the consumer (as defined in FDCPA section 805(d)) or certain other persons. The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(d)(1) to implement FDCPA section 805(b) and generally restate the statute, with minor wording and organizational changes for clarity.[248] For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(1) as proposed.

One consumer advocate requested that, to protect consumers' privacy across all forms of communication, the Bureau ban debt collectors from communicating with third parties without the consumer's written consent. The Bureau declines to adopt such an approach. FDCPA section 805(b) contemplates a debt collector communicating with third parties subject to the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt Start Printed Page 76775collector but does not require that the consumer effectuate that prior consent in writing.

One industry commenter requested the Bureau clarify what constitutes a third party. This commenter explained that a debt collector frequently must speak with a consumer's insurance company or a State victim assistance program to verify enrollment, and that such a third-party communication is intended to benefit the consumer and should therefore be considered permissible by the Bureau.

FDCPA section 805(b) specifically delineates the following persons with whom a debt collector may communicate without violating the prohibition on communication with third parties: The consumer, the consumer's attorney, a consumer reporting agency if otherwise permitted by law, the creditor, the attorney of the creditor, or the attorney of the debt collector. If a debt collector needs to communicate with any other person in connection with the collection of any debt, FDCPA section 805(b) provides an exception, as discussed below,[249] permitting the debt collector to do so with the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector. Therefore, to the extent a debt collector needs to speak with persons other than those listed in FDCPA section 805(b) and implemented in § 1006.6(d)(1) of this final rule, certain exceptions may apply permitting the debt collector to do so.

One industry commenter suggested that the Bureau adopt a safe harbor for inadvertent communications with a third party, such as if a third party hears a debt collector's voicemail message left on an answering machine. This commenter suggested that, if the debt collector discloses the third-party communication to the consumer and stops future communications with that third party, the debt collector should not be liable for the disclosure.

Federal government agency staff and some courts have found that debt collectors do not violate the FDCPA's prohibition on third-party disclosures unless they have reason to anticipate that the communication may be heard or read by third parties.[250] As the FTC previously explained, “[a] debt collector does not violate [FDCPA section 805(b)] when an eavesdropper overhears a conversation with the consumer, unless the debt collector has reason to anticipate the conversation will be overheard.” [251] As discussed in detail below, the Bureau is finalizing procedures in § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5) that are designed to ensure that a debt collector who uses a specific email address or telephone number to communicate with a consumer by email or text message does not have a reason to anticipate that an unauthorized third-party disclosure may occur.[252] In other situations, unless the debt collector has reason to anticipate that the communication may be heard or read by third parties, a debt collector who unintentionally communicates with a third party may be able to raise a bona fide error defense to civil liability under FDCPA section 813.

One State government commenter suggested that, for active service members, debt collectors often call the member's commanding officer to inform the supervisor about the outstanding debt. The commenter requested that the rule be revised to prohibit such violations of consumer privacy and job security. Unless the consumer has provided consent for such communications directly to the debt collector or another exception in § 1006.6(d)(2) applies, such conduct already is prohibited by FDCPA section 805(b) and will be prohibited by § 1006.6(d)(1).

For the reasons stated above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(1) as proposed to provide that, except as provided in § 1006.6(d)(2), a debt collector must not communicate, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than: The consumer (as defined in § 1006.6(a)); the consumer's attorney; a consumer reporting agency, if otherwise permitted by law; the creditor; the creditor's attorney; or the debt collector's attorney.

Proposed comment 6(d)(1)-1 explained that, because a limited-content message is not a communication, a debt collector does not violate § 1006.6(d)(1) if the debt collector leaves a limited-content message for a consumer orally with a third party who answers the consumer's home or mobile telephone. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(j), the Bureau is declining to finalize a definition of limited-content message that allows for such third-party limited-content messages. Accordingly, the Bureau is not adopting proposed comment 6(d)(1)-1.

6(d)(2) Exceptions

FDCPA section 805(b) specifies exceptions to the general prohibition against a debt collector communicating with third parties, including that a debt collector may engage in an otherwise prohibited communication with the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector. The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(d)(2) to implement the exceptions in FDCPA section 805(b) and generally restate the statute, with minor wording and organizational changes for clarity.[253] In relevant part, proposed § 1006.6(d)(2)(ii) would have implemented the statutory exception permitting third-party communications with a person when the debt collector has received prior consent directly from the consumer for such communications.

One industry commenter suggested that the Bureau clarify that prior consent under proposed § 1006.6(d)(2)(ii) includes consent the consumer gives to a third party to discuss debts with a debt collector. This commenter explained that, in some cases, a debt collector may receive from a debt settlement company an authorization signed by a consumer permitting the debt collector to communicate about a debt with the debt settlement company.

The Bureau declines to clarify the prior consent exception as requested because the scenario posed by the commenter will depend upon the specific facts and circumstances as to whether the consent provided satisfies § 1006.6(d)(2)(ii). The Bureau therefore is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(2) as proposed to provide that the prohibition in § 1006.6(d)(1) does not apply when a debt collector communicates, in connection with the collection of any debt, with a person: (i) For the purpose of acquiring location information, as provided in § 1006.10; (ii) with the prior consent of the consumer given directly to the debt collector; (iii) with the express permission of a court of competent jurisdiction; or (iv) as reasonably necessary to effectuate a postjudgment judicial remedy.

The Bureau proposed comment 6(d)(2)-1 to refer to the commentary to proposed § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) for guidance concerning a consumer giving prior consent directly to a debt collector. The Bureau received no comments on Start Printed Page 76776comment 6(d)(2)-1 and is finalizing it as proposed.

6(d)(3) Reasonable Procedures for Email and Text Message Communications

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3) identified procedures reasonably adapted to avoid a violation of FDCPA section 805(b)'s prohibition on third-party disclosures when communicating by email or text message.[254] A debt collector who sent an email or text message in accordance with the proposed procedures would have been entitled to a bona fide error defense to civil liability under FDCPA section 813(c) in the event of an unintentional third-party disclosure.[255]

Specifically, the Bureau proposed § 1006.6(d)(3) to provide a debt collector with a safe harbor from civil liability [256] for an unintentional third-party disclosure if, when communicating with a consumer using an email address or, in the case of a text message, a telephone number, the debt collector's procedures included steps to reasonably confirm and document that the debt collector: (1) Obtained and used the email address or telephone number in accordance with one of the methods described in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i); and (2) took additional steps, in accordance with proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii), to prevent communications using an email address or telephone number that the debt collector knew had led to an unauthorized third-party disclosure. Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A) through (C) described three methods of obtaining and using an email address or telephone number for text messages, none of which would have required a debt collector to obtain a consumer's direct prior consent (or “opt in”) before communicating by email or text message. As discussed throughout the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5), and pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to implement and interpret FDCPA sections 805(b) and 813(c), the Bureau is finalizing some portions of proposed § 1006.6(d)(3), and reorganizing and modifying others, as final § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5).

The Bureau received a large number of comments in response to proposed § 1006.6(d)(3), including thousands of comments from individual consumers, as well as comments from consumer advocates, creditors, debt collectors, trade associations, some members of Congress, State Attorneys General, local governments, and academics. Many commenters addressed specific aspects of proposed § 1006.6(d)(3); these comments are addressed where relevant in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5). Immediately below, the Bureau addresses the large number of comments that it received regarding the general operation of proposed § 1006.6(d)(3).

Risk of Consumer Harm Posed by Third-Party Disclosures

The Bureau received multiple comments regarding the general risks to consumers of third-party disclosures from electronic communications. Consumer and consumer advocate commenters argued that the reassignment of telephone numbers,[257] and the sharing of email accounts and telephone numbers between family members, increase the risk that a debt collector who sends an email or text message will disclose sensitive debt collection information to a third party not authorized to receive it. Moreover, some commenters noted, emails and text messages may be viewable by a consumer's email or telephone provider or appear on a publicly visible screen, such as when a consumer accesses email at the library. Several consumer advocate commenters stated that third-party disclosures could cause consumers to suffer reputational damage; increased risk of identity theft; and shame and other emotional pain, particularly when the third party to whom the disclosure is made is an employer, family member, or friend.

One industry commenter characterized email and text message communications as posing no more third-party disclosure risk than traditional mail and telephone communications. This commenter asserted that there is little third-party disclosure risk when a debt collector emails a consumer's current or former personal email address because, unlike telephone numbers, email addresses are rarely reassigned. Although the commenter conceded that the reassignment of telephone numbers increases the risk of third-party disclosure when debt collectors send text messages, the commenter asserted that, because consumers regularly change home addresses, the same degree of risk is present when a debt collector mails information to a consumer's last known address. Further, the commenter argued, any third-party disclosure risk that exists when a third party accesses a consumer's email account or sees an email or text message on a publicly visible screen is entirely within the consumer's control.

The Bureau recognizes that electronic communications in debt collection offer benefits to consumers and debt collectors. The Bureau also recognizes that electronic communications pose a risk of third-party disclosure, such as when a debt collector sends a text message to a telephone number that no longer belongs to the consumer, and, for some consumers, such a disclosure may cause harm. However, the Bureau emphasizes that there is no empirical data in the rulemaking record demonstrating whether and to what extent the privacy risks from electronic communications in debt collection are greater than, the same as, or less than those associated with non-electronic communications in debt collection. In finalizing the procedures in § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5), the Bureau has considered the benefits and risks of electronic communications based on the information in the rulemaking record.[258]

Reason-To-Anticipate Standard

A few commenters addressed the Bureau's proposal to design the procedures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3) so that a debt collector who uses them does not have reason to anticipate a third-party disclosure.[259] A consumer advocate commenter opposed the reason-to-anticipate standard, noting that consumers can be harmed even by Start Printed Page 76777unforeseeable disclosures. An industry commenter supported the standard, arguing that debt collectors should not be penalized for third-party disclosures they had no reason to anticipate, particularly when the circumstances giving rise to a disclosure, such as a third party's access to the consumer's email account or telephone, are out of the debt collector's control.

As in the proposal, the Bureau has designed the procedures in the final rule around the reason-to-anticipate standard. The reason-to-anticipate standard recognizes that it is generally not possible for a debt collector to eliminate entirely the risk that a third party will see or hear a debt collection communication. The standard is therefore consistent with FDCPA section 813(c), which protects debt collectors who unintentionally violate the statute notwithstanding the use of reasonable procedures. FDCPA section 813(c), like the reason-to-anticipate standard, generally recognizes that a debt collector acting in good faith pursuant to reasonable procedures should not be liable for errors (in this context, a third-party disclosure) that the debt collector did not intend and could not have foreseen.

Reasonably Confirm and Document

An industry commenter asked the Bureau to clarify the proposed requirement that a debt collector's procedures include steps to reasonably confirm and document that the debt collector acted in accordance with proposed § 1006.6(d)(3).[260] Another industry commenter suggested that procedures to reasonably confirm and document compliance should include an audit component and asked the Bureau to publish sample procedures. Consumer and consumer advocate commenters generally did not address the proposed requirement to reasonably confirm and document compliance.

The final rule retains the requirement that a debt collector's procedures include steps to reasonably confirm and document that the debt collector acted in accordance with § 1006.6(d)(3). Depending on their size, the scope of their operations, and other business-specific facts, different debt collectors may take different approaches to reasonably confirming and documenting compliance with § 1006.6(d)(3). The Bureau declines to specify by rule a single set of steps or elements that all procedures must or should include under § 1006.6(d)(3). As the Bureau noted in the preamble to the proposal, however, procedures permitting a debt collector to use obviously incorrect email addresses merely because the addresses were obtained consistent with § 1006.6(d)(3) would not satisfy the requirement to reasonably confirm and document compliance.[261] In this circumstance, any purported confirmation of the debt collector's compliance with § 1006.6(d)(3) would not be reasonable.

Scope of Procedures

The procedures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3) would have applied only to a debt collector's email and text message communications.[262] Two industry commenters requested that the Bureau clarify the term email. One did not propose a definition, while the other asked the Bureau to adopt an expansive definition that would include private communication tools offered by social media platforms. This commenter asserted that social media accounts, like email accounts, are password protected and generally not reassigned, and, as a result, direct messaging communications on social media should be treated the same as email communications. The commenter also stated that the definition of email should include mobile application or web-based technologies that allow consumers to initiate a live written conversation with a business through a “chat box.”

A group of consumer advocate commenters asked the Bureau to clarify that the term email does not include direct messages, whether sent through social media platforms or free-standing messaging platforms. These commenters asserted that, on some direct messaging platforms, users search for each other by first and last name rather than by a distinct and individual user name, which increases the likelihood of misdirected messages, particularly among consumers with common names.

In light of the apparent variations in direct messaging technology, the Bureau is unable to assess how well the procedures in final § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5) would address the risk of third-party disclosures in the direct messaging context. Therefore, for purposes of § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5), the Bureau declines to define the term email to include direct messaging technology in mobile applications or on social media. Debt collectors may use these communication media, subject to the requirements and prohibitions of the FDCPA and the final rule.

Multiple industry commenters advocated expanding the procedures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3), or developing new procedures, to cover additional communication technologies, such as smart phone notifications, ringless voicemails, and traditional telephone calls and voicemails. Each of these contexts may pose third-party disclosure risks that differ, in varying degrees, from the third-party disclosure risks posed by email and text message communications. Because the Bureau did not propose procedures related to other communications technologies, it lacks the benefit of public comment about what such procedures might look like.[263] Developing procedures to cover such technologies is outside the scope of this rulemaking.

The Bureau reiterates, however, that the final rule identifies neither the only circumstances in which a debt collector may communicate with a consumer electronically nor the only technologies a debt collector may use to do so. Nor does it identify the only procedures that may be reasonably adapted to avoid a violation of the prohibition on third-party disclosures. Thus, a debt collector would not necessarily violate § 1006.6(d)(1) or FDCPA section 805(b) by communicating with a consumer electronically other than by email or text message, or by email or text message without using the procedures in § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5). Moreover, depending on the facts, a debt collector might be able to show by a preponderance of the evidence that any third-party disclosures were unintentional and that the debt collector employed procedures reasonably adapted to avoid them.

First-Party Debt Collectors

Two credit union commenters asked the Bureau to clarify the rules for creditors' use of email and text messages. The procedures in § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5) apply to FDCPA debt collectors only. Creditors who are not FDCPA debt collectors are not subject to the FDCPA's prohibition on third-party disclosures, although they are covered by other consumer financial laws. To the extent commenters were requesting that the Bureau develop and finalize procedures applicable to creditors, such a request is outside the scope of this rulemaking.Start Printed Page 76778

Telephone Consumer Protection Act

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) generally prohibits the use of automated dialing equipment to call a telephone number without a consumer's consent.[264] A group of consumer advocate commenters asked the Bureau to clarify how the Bureau's procedures interact with the TCPA. Congress has vested the FCC—not the Bureau—with authority to implement the TCPA.[265] The final rule does not interpret the TCPA; nor does anything in the final rule alter any FCC rule or any obligation imposed on debt collectors by such a rule.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(3), which sets forth procedures that debt collectors may use to reduce their risk of civil liability for unintentional third-party disclosures when communicating with consumers by email or text message. In response to numerous comments regarding the details of the proposed procedures, and as discussed in detail below, the Bureau is finalizing procedures that differ substantively and organizationally from those that the Bureau proposed.[266]

6(d)(3)(i)

As proposed, § 1006.6(d)(3)(i) identified the first of two conditions that a debt collector would have had to satisfy to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when communicating by email or text message. Under proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i), the debt collector's procedures would have had to include steps to reasonably confirm and document that the debt collector communicated using an email address, or telephone number for text messages, in accordance with one of the three methods described in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A) through (C).

As proposed, § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A) through (C) provided a safe harbor if, among other things, the consumer had used the email address or telephone number to communicate with the debt collector (proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A), the “consumer-use” method); the consumer received notice and an opportunity to opt out of the debt collector's use of the email address or telephone number for text messages (proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B), the “notice-and-opt-out” method); or the creditor or a prior debt collector had obtained the email address or telephone number from the consumer and used it to communicate about the debt (proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(C), the “creditor-or-prior-debt-collector-use” method). As proposed, the methods in § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A) through (C) did not distinguish between communications sent by email and communications sent by text message.

Many commenters offered substantive feedback about the three methods of obtaining and using email addresses and telephone numbers described in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A) through (C). Those comments are addressed where relevant in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4) and (5). Some commenters also highlighted the differences between email and text message communications, noting the unique third-party disclosure risks presented by the reassignment of mobile telephone numbers.

After considering the public comments, the Bureau is, as proposed, finalizing § 1006.6(d)(3)(i) to identify the first of two conditions that a debt collector must satisfy to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when communicating by email or text message. However, in light of comments highlighting the different third-party disclosure risks of email communications and text message communications, the final rule sets forth different procedures for email messages and text messages and also addresses them separately (email in § 1006.6(d)(4) and text messages in § 1006.6(d)(5)). To reflect this change, final § 1006.6(d)(3)(i) provides that, for a debt collector to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure, a debt collector's procedures must include steps to reasonably confirm and document that the debt collector communicated with the consumer by sending an email to an email address described in § 1006.6(d)(4) or a text message to a telephone number described in § 1006.6(d)(5).

6(d)(3)(ii)

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii) identified the second of two conditions a debt collector would have had to satisfy to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when communicating by email or text message. Specifically, under proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii), the debt collector's procedures would have had to include steps to reasonably confirm and document that the debt collector took additional steps to prevent communications using an email address or telephone number that the debt collector knew had led to an unauthorized third-party disclosure. The Bureau proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii) on the basis that a debt collector whose procedures are not designed to prevent recurrence of a known violation may intend to convey information related to the debt or its collection to a third party.

A group of consumer advocate commenters argued that proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii) did not sufficiently address the risk of repeat third-party disclosures. According to these commenters, the Bureau should simply require debt collectors to stop using an email address or telephone number for text messages if the debt collector knows that using the address or telephone number has led to a third-party disclosure, unless the consumer has expressly consented. One industry commenter requested that the Bureau provide examples of additional steps a debt collector could take to prevent communications using an email address or telephone number that the debt collector knows has led to a third-party disclosure.

The Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii) with modifications for clarity. Specifically, § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii) provides that, to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability, a debt collector's procedures must include steps to reasonably confirm and document that the debt collector did not communicate with the consumer by sending an email to an email address or a text message to a telephone number that the debt collector knows has led to a disclosure prohibited by § 1006.6(d)(1).

The Bureau is not adopting the suggestion to require debt collectors simply to stop using email addresses and telephone numbers that have led to third-party disclosures. As noted, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5) as an interpretation of FDCPA section 813(c)'s bona fide error defense. A bona fide error defense is only available under FDCPA section 813(c) if a debt collector maintains procedures reasonably adapted to avoid an error. Accordingly, § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii) is framed in terms of a debt collector's procedures. The Bureau notes, however, that, if a debt collector sends repeated emails to an email address or text messages to a telephone number that the debt collector knows has led to a third-party disclosure, that conduct would likely show that the debt collector's procedures are not reasonable and that Start Printed Page 76779the debt collector is not entitled to a safe harbor from civil liability.[267]

In response to the industry commenter's request for examples, the Bureau is adopting new comment 6(d)(3)(ii)-1, which clarifies that, for purposes of § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii), a debt collector knows that sending an email to an email address or a text message to a telephone number has led to a disclosure prohibited by § 1006.6(d)(1) if any person has informed the debt collector of that fact. Thus, to comply with § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii), it is necessary (but not sufficient) for a debt collector to accept and track complaints.

6(d)(4) Procedures for Email Addresses

As noted above, the final rule reorganizes proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i) by separating email procedures and text message procedures, and final § 1006.6(d)(4) describes the three procedures that a debt collector may use to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when communicating by email. The final email procedures are discussed in detail in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) through (iii).

The Bureau received one overarching comment regarding its proposed email procedures. One industry commenter stated that requiring debt collectors to encrypt email communications or protect them with passwords would reduce the risk of third-party disclosure. As proposed, the email procedures would not have required encryption or password protection, and the Bureau declines to require debt collectors to take these steps to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for third-party disclosures. The Bureau notes, however, that a debt collector who encrypts its emails or protects them with a password would not thereby lose access to a safe harbor from civil liability under § 1006.6(d)(3) for which the debt collector otherwise qualified.

6(d)(4)(i) Procedures Based on Communication Between the Consumer and the Debt Collector

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A) (the “consumer-use” method) for emails provided that a debt collector could obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure if, in addition to complying with § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii), the debt collector maintained procedures to reasonably confirm and document that the debt collector communicated with the consumer using an email address, including an employer-provided email address, that the consumer recently used to contact the debt collector for purposes other than opting out of electronic communications.[268] As discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing the email procedures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A) as § 1006.6(d)(4)(i), with modifications and additions to address comments received, and with revisions for clarity.

The Bureau received numerous comments regarding its assumption that a debt collector may not have reason to anticipate a third-party disclosure when sending an email to an email address, including an employer-provided email address, that the consumer recently used to communicate with the debt collector. The Bureau reasoned that a consumer generally is better positioned than a debt collector to determine whether third parties have access to a specific email address, and a consumer's decision to communicate with a debt collector using a specific email address may suggest that the consumer assessed the risk of third-party disclosure to be low.[269]

In general, industry commenters supported the Bureau's reasoning, while several consumer advocate commenters rejected it. Consumer advocate commenters generally asserted that it is unlikely that consumers will have done a third-party disclosure risk analysis before using a particular email address to communicate with a debt collector, and that consumers who lack regular access to a computer or email address might use another person's email address to communicate with the debt collector. Consumer advocate commenters also asserted that a consumer may feel some urgency to contact a debt collector and may use a certain email address to do so without intending to establish that address as a regular means of contact. As to employer-provided email addresses specifically, consumer advocate commenters argued that employees may not be aware that employers can and do monitor emails sent or received on employer-provided accounts, and that even consumers who are aware of this possibility likely would be unaware that sending a carefully worded email to a debt collector could insulate the debt collector from third-party disclosure liability if the debt collector replied to that address.

The Bureau determines that consumers are generally better positioned than debt collectors to determine if third parties have access to a particular email account, whether personal or employer provided. A consumer who uses a particular email address to contact a debt collector about a debt likely expects the debt collector to respond using the same address. In addition, because a third party with access to a consumer's email account typically can read outgoing and incoming communications, an email message sent by a consumer to a debt collector may, like an email message received by a consumer from a debt collector, result in a third-party disclosure. For these reasons, the Bureau continues to believe that a consumer's willingness to use an email address to contact a debt collector without conditions suggests that the risk of third-party disclosure is low if the debt collector responds to that email. Therefore, a debt collector who uses such an email address generally would lack reason to anticipate a third-party disclosure, unless the consumer has asked the debt collector not to engage in such communications.[270]

The Bureau also received numerous comments regarding proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A)'s recency requirement, i.e., the requirement that the email address be one that the consumer recently used to contact the debt collector. While many commenters confirmed that telephone numbers are regularly reassigned, several industry commenters stated that email addresses typically are not reassigned and that the proposed recency requirement for email addresses therefore was unnecessary. Several industry commenters also objected on the ground that a recency requirement would impose a burden on debt collectors to track information, such as when a consumer last used an email address. A group of consumer advocate commenters acknowledged that email addresses are reassigned far Start Printed Page 76780less frequently than telephone numbers but nevertheless supported the recency requirement for email addresses.

The Bureau has decided not to include a recency requirement as part of the email procedures in final § 1006.6(d)(4)(i).[271] The Bureau proposed the recency requirement principally to address the risk that a telephone number might be reassigned from one consumer to another, and would have applied the requirement to email addresses largely for consistency and ease of administration.[272] In light of comments asserting that a recency requirement imposes some burden on creditors and debt collectors to track and transfer information, and comments indicating that emails are reassigned infrequently if at all, the Bureau concludes that a recency requirement should not apply to email addresses.[273]

Several industry commenters requested that the Bureau expand the procedures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A), or create new procedures, to protect a debt collector who communicates with a consumer by email after receiving the consumer's permission to use the email address for debt collection communications, such as if the consumer provides the email address to the debt collector over the telephone or while using the debt collector's website, or provides the email address to a court for purposes of receiving electronic service of process.[274] The Bureau concludes that, if a consumer has directly consented to a debt collector's use of a particular email address and has not withdrawn that consent,[275] the debt collector generally does not have reason to anticipate that using the email address to communicate with the consumer will lead to a third-party disclosure. Accordingly, and as discussed below, the final rule includes a new provision, § 1006.6(d)(4)(i)(B), to account for the direct consent scenario.[276]

Many industry commenters also requested that the Bureau expand the procedures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A), or create new procedures, to cover not only an email address that the consumer provided to the debt collector, but also an email address that the consumer provided to, or used to contact, the creditor. Some of these commenters argued that, if a consumer provided an email address when opening an account or communicating with a creditor, the consumer knew or should have known that the debt collector would use the email address to collect the debt, and there is no need to delay the collection process by requiring consumers to re-confirm their preferences. Similarly, an industry commenter argued that a consumer who has chosen to communicate with a creditor electronically should be assumed to prefer communicating with a debt collector electronically, and that an opt-in system burdens consumer choice and delays the collection process by imposing an additional requirement before debt collectors may begin electronic debt collection communications. Some commenters advocated for a safe harbor from civil liability as long as the creditor's account opening materials disclosed that an email address the consumer gives the creditor could be used for debt collection purposes. Other commenters, recognizing that a consumer's communication preferences may change over time and that years may elapse between when a consumer provides a creditor with electronic contact information and when a creditor transfers the consumer's debt to a debt collector, suggested a safe harbor for email addresses provided by the consumer to the creditor within a particular timeframe, such as within the 270 days preceding the debt collector's use. Another industry commenter suggested a safe harbor for a debt collector who sends an email to an email address used by the creditor to send the consumer delinquency communications in the months before an account is placed for collection.

As the Bureau noted in the proposal, a consumer might agree to receive electronic communications from a creditor without considering the risk that a third party might read those communications, but a consumer who is indifferent to the disclosure of creditor communications may not be indifferent to the disclosure of debt collection communications.[277] Thus, a consumer's decision to communicate electronically with a creditor does not, without more, suggest that the risk of third-party disclosure is particularly low. Nor does a disclosure in account opening materials, without more, suggest that the risk of third-party disclosure is particularly low. Years may pass, and a consumer's circumstances may change, between the time a consumer opens an account and the time the account is transferred to a debt collector. The Bureau therefore declines to add the procedures requested by these commenters. The Bureau notes, however, that nothing in § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) prohibits a debt collector from sending an email to an email address provided by the consumer to the creditor. Depending on the facts, a debt collector may be able to do so without violating FDCPA section 805(b).[278]

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A) as § 1006.6(d)(4)(i). Section 1006.6(d)(4)(i)(A) provides that a debt collector may obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when sending an email to an email address if the consumer used the email address to communicate with the debt collector about the debt and the consumer has not since opted out of communications to that email address.[279] Section Start Printed Page 767811006.6(d)(4)(i)(B) provides that a debt collector may obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when sending an email to an email address if the debt collector has received directly from the consumer prior consent to use the email address to communicate with the consumer about the debt and the consumer has not withdrawn that consent.

The Bureau also is adopting new comments 6(d)(4)(i)(B)-1 and -2 to clarify the meaning of direct prior consent for purposes of § 1006.6(d)(4)(i)(B). Comment 6(d)(4)(i)(B)-1 clarifies that a consumer may provide direct consent orally, in writing, or electronically. Comment 6(d)(4)(i)(B)-2 clarifies that, if a consumer provides an email address to a debt collector (including on the debt collector's website or online portal), the debt collector may treat the consumer as having consented directly to the debt collector's use of the email address to communicate with the consumer about the debt for purposes of § 1006.6(d)(4)(i)(B) if the debt collector discloses clearly and conspicuously that the debt collector may use the email address to communicate with the consumer about the debt.[280]

6(d)(4)(ii) Procedures Based on Communication by the Creditor

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B) (the “notice-and-opt-out” method) generally provided that a debt collector could obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure if, in addition to complying with § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii), the debt collector maintained procedures to reasonably confirm and document that: (1) The debt collector communicated with the consumer using a personal email address after the creditor or the debt collector provided the consumer with notice of such communications and a reasonable opportunity to opt out; and (2) the consumer did not opt out.[281]

The Bureau received a number of comments relating to the general concept of permitting a debt collector to use notice-and-opt-out procedures to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for unintentional third-party disclosures when sending an email to a consumer.[282] Industry commenters generally supported the Bureau's reasoning that a consumer's failure to opt out after receiving notice that an email address could be used for debt collection communications may suggest that the consumer has assessed the risk of third-party disclosure to be low. Industry commenters also generally opposed any requirement that consumers opt into electronic communications, with several predicting that few consumers would opt in, and that, as a result, electronic communications would be unlikely to take place at all. These commenters noted that, in at least one State that requires consumers to opt into email communications, debt collectors generally do not use email to communicate with consumers.[283]

Consumer advocate commenters requested that the Bureau not adopt a notice-and-opt-out approach. These commenters argued that the Bureau should permit electronic communications only pursuant to an opt-in approach, which would enable consumers, before agreeing to electronic communications, to: (1) Weigh any risks due to irregular internet or cellphone access; (2) confirm the addresses and telephone numbers to which electronic communications may be directed, ensuring that, particularly for consumers who regularly change telephone numbers or abandon email addresses, communications are sent to the consumer rather than to a third party; (3) weigh the financial cost of electronic communications (for consumers with limited text message or data plans); (4) familiarize themselves with the sender and weigh any security risks, helping to ensure that consumers actually would open emails and minimizing the chance that emails would be blocked by spam filters and other screening devices; [284] and (5) weigh any privacy-related risks, including that emails and text messages could be viewed by a consumer's telephone or email provider, could appear on a publicly visible computer or telephone screen, or could be coming from a phony, rather than legitimate, debt collector.

The Bureau recognizes that, as consumer advocates observed, for an opt-out system to work the consumer must, among other things, actually receive the opt-out notice and have the opportunity to consider it. The Bureau also recognizes that a consumer who receives an opt-out notice may ignore it, fail to consider the risks of receiving emails (including the risk of third-party disclosure), or not take the steps necessary to opt out. However, the Bureau believes that the safeguards it has incorporated in the rule, which are discussed below, will mitigate these concerns.[285] For these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing the notice-and-opt-out method in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B) as § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii), with modifications as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(A) through (E) to increase the likelihood that a consumer will have an opportunity to make an adequately informed choice whether to opt out of receiving emails.

6(d)(4)(ii)(A)

As proposed, the notice-and-opt-out method in § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B) generally would have provided a safe harbor from civil liability for debt collector communications sent to any personal email address other than the address to which the opt-out notice itself was sent, provided the other opt-out requirements were met. Under proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B), then, a debt collector could have used the notice-and-opt-out method to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when sending an email to an email Start Printed Page 76782address obtained through skip tracing or any other method.

To increase the likelihood that the email address for which a debt collector using the notice-and-opt-out method obtains a safe harbor actually belongs to the consumer, and thereby minimize the risk of a third-party disclosure, the Bureau finds that it is important to limit the types of email addresses debt collectors may use on an opt-out basis. An email address obtained by the creditor directly from the consumer is highly likely to belong to the consumer; by contrast, an email address obtained through skip tracing generally lacks the same degree of reliability.[286] For these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(A), which provides that, for purposes of the notice-and-opt-out method, the debt collector may send an email only to an email address that a creditor obtained from the consumer.

Final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(A) is similar to an aspect of proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(C),[287] which, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.6(d)(4)(iii), provided that a debt collector could satisfy the “creditor-or-prior-debt-collector-use” method of obtaining a safe harbor only if, among other things, the debt collector used an email address obtained from the consumer by the creditor or a prior debt collector.[288] In response to that proposed requirement, a group of consumer advocate commenters asked the Bureau to clarify how a creditor could obtain an email address from the consumer and how a debt collector would know that a creditor had done so. There are many ways for a creditor to obtain an email address from a consumer for purposes of the notice-and-opt-out procedures in § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii). For example, the creditor may request the email address at account opening,[289] or at a later stage of the parties' relationship, or the consumer might voluntarily provide the email address on a website or otherwise. The Bureau does not believe it is necessary to specify by rule precisely how a debt collector would know that the creditor had obtained an email address from the consumer. Different debt collectors may have different approaches to reasonably confirming and documenting this fact.

6(d)(4)(ii)(B)

As noted, the notice-and-opt-out method in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B) generally would have provided a safe harbor for debt collector communications sent to any personal email address other than the address to which the opt-out notice was sent, provided the other opt-out requirements were met. There was no requirement that the creditor (or any other person) previously had used the email address to communicate with the consumer.

To further reduce the risk of a third-party disclosure when debt collectors use the notice-and-opt-out method, the Bureau believes that it is important to incorporate such a requirement into § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii). While any requirement that the email address had been used by the creditor to communicate with the consumer (even if only for advertising or marketing) would help achieve this goal, the Bureau determines that requiring the creditor to have used the email address to communicate with the consumer about the account reduces the risk of third-party disclosure even further. Although the FDCPA recognizes that creditor communications are less sensitive than debt collector communications, some creditor communications, such as communications about the account, are more sensitive than others, such as advertising or marketing communications. The Bureau therefore believes that a consumer's willingness to communicate electronically with a creditor about an account says more about the risk of third-party disclosure should the account enter collections than a consumer's willingness to receive advertisements or marketing materials electronically. Conversely, if a consumer has asked a creditor to stop using an email address to communicate about an account, a debt collector may have reason to anticipate that using the address to communicate about the debt could lead to a third-party disclosure.

For these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(B), which provides that, for purposes of the notice-and-opt-out method, a debt collector may send an email only to an email address used by the creditor to communicate with the consumer about the account, and only if the consumer did not ask the creditor to stop using it. The Bureau also is adopting new comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(B)-1 to clarify the types of communications that constitute communications about the account for purposes of § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(B).

Final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(B) is similar to aspects of proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(C), which, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.6(d)(4)(iii), provided that a debt collector could satisfy the “creditor-or-prior-debt-collector-use” method of obtaining a safe harbor only if, among other things, the debt collector used an email address to which the creditor or a prior debt collector sent communications about the debt, and the consumer did not ask the creditor or prior debt collector to stop. The Bureau received a number of comments regarding those aspects of proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(C), and those comments have informed final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(B).[290]

An industry commenter objected to requiring the creditor to have communicated “about the debt,” arguing that the requirement should be eliminated or broadened to include communications “about the account” because a creditor's communications with a consumer typically involve the account rather than the debt. By contrast, a group of consumer advocate commenters argued the requirement would not sufficiently protect consumers because it would not have required that the consumer actually received or accessed the communications, or that the creditor or debt collector took any steps to confirm the consumer's receipt and access. In addition, the consumer advocate commenters noted, any requirements placed on creditors would not be enforceable against creditors who were not also FDCPA debt collectors. The commenters also argued that a Start Printed Page 76783consumer's failure to request that the creditor stop using a particular email address is just as likely to mean that messages to that address had gone to the consumer's spam folder or had reached the wrong person as to mean that the consumer had assessed third-party disclosure risk to be low. In addition, these commenters noted, a creditor is under no obligation to inform the consumer of the right or ability to opt out of communications, so a consumer's failure to opt out should not implicitly authorize a debt collector to send emails to that email address.

The Bureau determines that, given the multiple consumer protections built into the final notice-and-opt-out procedures to limit the likelihood of a third-party disclosure—including requirements relating to the form and content of the opt-out notice, as well as who may deliver it and in what manner—it is not necessary to require the creditor to have used the email address to communicate about the debt, as distinguished from the account. Nor does the Bureau believe it is necessary to require that the consumer actually received or was able to view the creditor's communications, or that the creditor took steps to confirm the consumer's receipt and access of those communications. Under § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(A), the email address must have been obtained by the creditor from the consumer and is therefore highly likely to belong to the consumer, particularly because email addresses generally are not reassigned. Moreover, a consumer who provides an email address to a creditor is likely to expect email communications about the account from the creditor and to follow up should any expected communications not arrive, diminishing the risk that a creditor's emails will be blocked by a spam filter.[291] In addition, to the extent that the email address is one for which the creditor has obtained consent under the E-SIGN Act, the creditor will already have confirmed the consumer's ability to access the communications.[292] Further, under § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii), a consumer's failure to opt out of a creditor's past use of an email address does not, without more, provide a safe harbor to a debt collector who uses that email address; the creditor must, among other things, provide the consumer with notice and a reasonable opportunity to opt out of debt collection communications to that address. Accordingly, the final rule does not treat a consumer's failure to exercise an undisclosed opt-out right as implicitly authorizing a debt collector to send emails to that email address.

Regarding the requirement that the consumer did not ask the creditor to stop using the address, one industry commenter suggested, without further explanation, that only a consumer's written request should suffice. The Bureau declines the commenter's suggestion; an oral request can suggest just as well as a written request that the risk of third-party disclosure is high.

For these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(B) as described above.

6(d)(4)(ii)(C)

As proposed, § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) contained a number of requirements regarding the opt-out notice. The creditor or debt collector would have been required to notify the consumer clearly and conspicuously, no more than 30 days before the debt collector sent its first email communication, that the debt collector might use a particular personal email address for such communications. The creditor or debt collector also would have been required to provide the notice other than through the email address that the debt collector planned to use for debt collection communications, and to describe how to opt out. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1), with modifications and additions, as final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C) to provide that, before a debt collector uses an email address to communicate with a consumer about a debt under § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii), the creditor must send the consumer a written or electronic notice that clearly and conspicuously discloses the information identified in § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(1) through (5).[293]

Who May Provide the Opt-Out Notice

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) would have permitted either the creditor or the debt collector to provide the opt-out notice. Several industry commenters observed that a creditor who provides the opt-out notice itself will incur costs to do so, while a group of consumer advocate commenters expressed concern about enforcing the law against creditors who provide the opt-out notice in a manner that violates the rule. As commenters also noted in discussing electronic communications generally, many consumers are suspicious of communications from entities they do not know or recognize, such as debt collectors. Consumers may ignore or delete such communications without opening them and may be reluctant to click on any links they contain, including links to opt out of further communications. Indeed, as the Bureau noted in the proposal, several Federal agencies have warned consumers against clicking on links from unknown senders.[294]

The Bureau recognizes, as industry commenters noted, that creditors will incur a cost to send the opt-out notice. Some creditors may absorb these costs while others may seek to require debt collectors to absorb them. The Bureau notes, however, that debt collectors are not required to follow the procedures in § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii). A debt collector who deems the procedures too expensive may use the other procedures in § 1006.6(d)(4) or operate outside of the safe harbor. As to the consumer advocate commenter's concern about enforceability, the Bureau reiterates that the final rule may be enforced against FDCPA debt collectors.[295]

The Bureau agrees that consumers may be reluctant to open emails from, or click on hyperlinks in emails from, unknown or untrusted sources. However, the Bureau determines that these concerns are less salient when a written or electronic communication comes from a recognized entity with which the consumer has an ongoing relationship, such as a creditor who has communicated with the consumer. For these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C) to provide that the Start Printed Page 76784creditor, and only the creditor, may send the opt-out notice.

How the Opt-Out Notice May Be Provided

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) would not have permitted the creditor or the debt collector to send the notice to the specific email address the debt collector intended to use for future communications. Consumer advocate commenters generally did not address this limitation. Several industry commenters opposed it, arguing that it effectively would require a debt collector to establish right-party contact before providing the opt-out notice, which could require multiple calls to the consumer. These commenters also argued that the limitation could be confusing to consumers, who are used to receiving emails and clicking on unsubscribe links to stop future emails to that email address, not to prevent future emails to a different email address.

The final rule does not include the requirement to send the opt-out notice other than to the email address the debt collector intends to use. The purpose of this requirement was to prevent a third-party disclosure of the opt-out notice itself. That concern was more salient under the proposal, which would have permitted debt collectors to send the opt-out notice. Because only creditors may provide the opt-out notice under the final rule and because the opt-out notice may be sent only to an email address the creditor used to communicate with the consumer about the account, the Bureau believes that the proposed requirement is unnecessary in the final rule. The final rule does, however, require the creditor to send the opt-out notice to an address the creditor obtained from the consumer and used to communicate with the consumer about the account. The purpose of this requirement is to help ensure that the consumer receives the opt-out notice.[296]

Form of Opt-Out Notice

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) would have required the creditor or the debt collector to provide clearly and conspicuously the information in the opt-out notice. It also would have permitted the notice to be provided orally, in writing, or electronically.

Industry commenters generally did not address these delivery issues. A group of consumer advocate commenters appeared to support delivery of the opt-out notice by mail only. According to these commenters, telephone calls to consumers, particularly telephone calls from debt collectors, already involve multiple disclosures, and an opt-out notice related to electronic debt collection communications may be missed by consumers overwhelmed with other information. These commenters also asserted that consumers would be unlikely to listen to opt-out messages delivered by robocall, and they expressed concern that an opt-out notice delivered electronically might not be seen at all, particularly if blocked by a consumer's spam filter.

Final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C) retains the requirement that the information in the opt-out notice be clear and conspicuous. In addition, final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C) requires that the notice be delivered in writing or electronically, rather than orally (whether in a robocall or live conversation).[297] Requiring that the notice be delivered in writing or electronically helps ensure that consumers can review the contents of the notice while making their opt-out decisions. The Bureau declines, however, to require that the opt-out notice be provided only by mail. The Bureau believes that the risk that a spam filter might block an opt-out notice was of greater concern under the proposal, which would have permitted debt collectors to send the opt-out notice. Under the final rule, however, the opt-out notice can be provided only by the creditor, a known sender, to an email address the creditor used to communicate with the consumer about the account, which should reduce the risk that an electronic notice would be flagged as spam.[298]

Timing of Opt-Out Notice

To ensure that consumers could make their opt-out decisions at a time reasonably contemporaneous with potential electronic debt collection communications, proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) would have required the opt-out notice to be provided no more than 30 days before the debt collector engaged in debt collection communications by email.

Consumer advocate commenters generally did not address this requirement. A few industry commenters supported the requirement as proposed; others asked that the period be lengthened or eliminated altogether. One industry commenter who called for eliminating the timing requirement argued that, once a debt is in collection, a consumer typically has ignored the creditor for 120 or 180 days. According to this commenter, such a consumer also is likely to ignore a notice sent from the creditor or the debt collector, so the timing requirement would serve no purpose. Another industry commenter argued that a timing requirement could interfere with the mortgage servicing practice of sending Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act of 1974 (RESPA) [299] -required transfer-of-servicing letters, also known as hello and goodbye letters, by email in some cases. This commenter suggested that, as long as a consumer has consented to receiving email communications from a prior servicer, the final rule should allow a new servicer to provide a hello letter by email if the email also includes the opt-out notice. Industry commenters who asked the Bureau to extend the 30-day period generally argued that 30 days is too little time for a creditor to send the consumer an opt-out notice and place the account with a debt collector, and for a debt collector to then process the file for collections and send an electronic communication. One such commenter asked the Bureau to adopt a 90-day period; another requested a 180-day period.

The Bureau determines that consumers should receive the opt-out notice at a time reasonably contemporaneous with potential debt collection communications. As discussed elsewhere, the Bureau believes that a notice provided by the creditor at account opening would generally not serve this goal because years may pass, and a consumer's circumstances may change, between the time the consumer opens an account and the time a debt enters collections. Start Printed Page 76785In light of industry commenters' concerns, however, final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C) does not contain a specific timing requirement. Instead, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(1), the Bureau addresses the timing issue by requiring the opt-out notice to identify the debt collector to which the creditor has transferred or will transfer the debt. Creditors usually decide to whom they will transfer a debt close to the time they transfer it, which, in turn, is likely to be reasonably contemporaneous with the potential debt collection communication.[300]

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C), which provides that a debt collector may obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure if, among other things, before the debt collector used an email address to communicate with the consumer about the debt, the creditor sent a written or electronic notice, to an address the creditor obtained from the consumer and used to communicate with the consumer about the account, that clearly and conspicuously disclosed the information listed in § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(1) through (5). The Bureau also is adopting new comments 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)-1 through -3 to clarify certain aspects of § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C). Comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)-1 clarifies the requirement to provide the notice clearly and conspicuously.[301] Comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)-2 provides sample language that a creditor may use to comply with § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C). Comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)-3 clarifies that the opt-out notice may be contained in a larger communication that conveys other information, as long as the notice is clear and conspicuous.[302]

6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(1)

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) would have required the opt-out notice to contain the legal name of the debt collector to which the debt was being transferred. Commenters generally did not address this requirement.

To harmonize the proposed requirement with the final rule's approach that only the creditor may provide the opt-out notice, and to address the timing concerns discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C), final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(1) retains the proposed requirement but modifies it to provide that the opt-out notice must disclose that the debt has been or will be transferred to the debt collector. Comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(1)-1 clarifies that, to satisfy this requirement, the opt-out notice must identify the name of the specific debt collector to which the debt has been or will be transferred.

The Bureau understands that most creditors do not know the precise debt collector to which they will transfer a debt until relatively close in time to the transfer. Moreover, the Bureau believes that, even among creditors who use only a single debt collector to collect their debts, or who otherwise know the identity of a debt collector well in advance, many would not send the opt-out notice before the consumer has become delinquent, because doing so could undermine the creditor's relationship with the consumer. In addition, the Bureau anticipates that, to facilitate compliance with recordkeeping obligations imposed by other consumer protection statutes and regulations, many creditors will choose to send the opt-out notice close in time to the debt collector's communication. The Bureau therefore finds that § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(1)'s requirement to identify a specific debt collector will adequately ensure that the consumer receives the opt-out notice at a time reasonably contemporaneous with the proposed electronic communications, reducing the likelihood that the consumer's circumstances will have changed by the time the debt collector communicates electronically.

In addition, although consumers generally do not have pre-existing relationships with particular debt collectors, it is possible that some consumers, particularly those with multiple debts in collection, may have interacted with a particular debt collector in the past. Requiring the creditor to identify the debt collector by name in the opt-out notice allows such a consumer to make a more informed choice about whether to opt out of electronic communications.

6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(2)

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) would have required the opt-out notice to contain the email address that the debt collector proposed to use for debt collection communications. The Bureau received no comments regarding this requirement and is finalizing it as § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(2), which provides that the opt-out notice must disclose the email address and the fact that the debt collector might use the email address to communicate with the consumer about the debt.

6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(3)

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) would not have required the opt-out notice to disclose that others with access to the email address might see the debt collector's communications. The Bureau believes that such a requirement would focus the consumer's attention on the risk of third-party disclosure from debt collection communications and thereby help to address consumer advocates' concerns, discussed elsewhere, that a consumer's failure to opt out after receiving the opt-out notice might not reflect a consumer's assessment of the risk of a third-party disclosure. For this reason, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(3) to provide that the opt-out notice must disclose that, if others have access to the email address, then it is possible they may see the emails.

6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(4)

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) would have required the opt-out notice to describe one or more methods that the consumer could use to opt out. As proposed, a debt collector could have employed any opt-out method—even a potentially inconvenient one—as long as it was disclosed in the notice. While commenters generally did not address this proposed requirement, the Bureau is finalizing it with modifications to ensure that the burden of opting out does not prevent or unduly hinder consumers who want to opt out from doing so.

Specifically, final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(4) requires the opt-out notice to disclose instructions for a reasonable and simple method by which the consumer can opt out of a debt collector's use of the email address identified in the opt-out notice. A reasonable-and-simple requirement, which is also used in the Bureau's Regulation V,[303] should help to ensure that a consumer who wishes to opt out is not deterred by the process of doing so. Comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(4)-1 provides Start Printed Page 76786illustrative examples of opt-out methods that satisfy the reasonable-and-simple standard.

6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(5)

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(1) would have required the opt-out notice to specify a reasonable period within which a consumer could opt out, but it did not define the term reasonable period.

Several industry commenters opposed an opt-out period, arguing that a consumer who provided electronic contact information to a creditor at account opening has decided to communicate electronically and, for these consumers, an opt-out period would only delay the use of electronic communications. Other industry commenters warned that failing to define the term reasonable period would create legal uncertainty and litigation risk, thereby discouraging use of the safe harbor and, in turn, electronic communications in debt collection. These commenters suggested opt-out periods ranging between five and 14 days, variously noting that almost all requests to opt out would be received within the first week, that the CAN-SPAM Act requires covered entities to process email opt-out requests within 10 days,[304] and that mortgage servicers must provide consumers at least 14 days to respond to an offer of loss mitigation in certain circumstances under the Bureau's mortgage servicing rules.[305] A group of consumer advocate commenters also urged the Bureau to define the term reasonable period, suggesting that an opt-out period of fewer than 30 days could result in consumer confusion given the 30-day validation period required by FDCPA section 809.[306]

The Bureau declines the suggestion to eliminate the opt-out period altogether. As explained in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(i), a consumer's decision to communicate electronically with a creditor does not, without more, suggest that the risk of third-party disclosure is particularly low. However, the Bureau agrees with industry and consumer advocate commenters about the need to define the opt-out period more clearly. Leaving the period undefined, or relying on a reasonableness requirement, could create legal uncertainty that could hamper the use of electronic communications in debt collection and make it harder for consumers to enforce their rights.

Accordingly, the final rule specifies that the opt-out period must last at least 35 days from the date the opt-out notice is sent. In deciding to finalize a 35-day minimum opt-out period, the Bureau concluded that, consistent with FDCPA section 809, which affords consumers 30 days within which to exercise certain statutory rights, consumers should be afforded at least 30 days within which to inform the debt collector of a decision to opt out. The Bureau included an additional five days to account for the time it might take an opt-out notice to reach a consumer by mail.[307]

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(5), which requires the opt-out notice to disclose the date by which the debt collector or the creditor must receive the consumer's request to opt out, which must be at least 35 days after the date the notice is sent. The Bureau may consider changing the 35-day period in the future based on actual stakeholder experience with this provision.[308] The Bureau also is adopting new comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(5)-1 to clarify that the opt-out notice may instruct the consumer to respond to the debt collector or to the creditor but not to both. The comment is meant to provide creditors and debt collectors with the flexibility to decide among themselves who will be responsible for receiving and processing opt-out requests, and to design the opt-out process accordingly.[309]

6(d)(4)(ii)(D)

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(2) provided that, for a debt collector to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability under the notice-and-opt-out method, the opt-out period must have expired, and the consumer must not have opted out. Proposed comment 6(d)(3)(i)(B)(2)-1 clarified that, notwithstanding the expiration of the § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(2) opt-out period, a consumer would remain free to request that a debt collector not use a particular email address, or not communicate using email generally, under proposed § 1006.14(h). For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(2) as § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(D), largely as proposed but with non-substantive changes to reflect the revised organization and terminology in the final rule. The Bureau also is adopting new commentary for clarity and in response to feedback.

First, an industry commenter raised a possible implementation issue regarding proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)(2), observing that, given the time necessary for an opt-out notice to reach a consumer and for the consumer to notify a debt collector of a decision to opt out, a debt collector acting in good faith may risk communicating with the consumer after the opt-out period ends but before receiving the consumer's request to opt out. The commenter urged the Bureau to address this issue by creating a bright-line rule allowing for communication up to 45 days after the opt-out period ends.

The Bureau believes that the commenter's proposed solution entails an unnecessarily prolonged risk of third-party disclosure. After the opt-out period ends, a debt collector who sends an email to an email address pursuant to the procedures in § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii) remains within the safe harbor unless and until the debt collector receives the consumer's request to opt out of emails to that email address. Once the debt collector receives such a request, future emails to that email address would not be protected by the safe harbor.[310]

Second, a group of consumer advocate commenters requested that the Bureau revise proposed comment 6(d)(3)(i)(B)(2)-1 to clarify that consumers can, even after the expiration Start Printed Page 76787of the opt-out period: (1) opt out of the debt collector's use of an email address pursuant to § 1006.6(e); [311] and (2) cease communication under § 1006.6(c)(1).[312] The Bureau is finalizing proposed comment 6(d)(3)(i)(B)(2)-1 as comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(D)-1, with revisions to incorporate these suggestions.

Finally, industry commenters requested that the Bureau clarify whether a debt collector should treat a consumer's request to opt out as a request to cease communication under § 1006.6(c)(1). A consumer's request to opt out in response to an opt-out notice that identifies a particular email address to which debt collection communications may be sent is generally not a request to opt out of all communications. Accordingly, new comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(D)-2 clarifies that, in the absence of evidence that the consumer refuses to pay the debt or wants the debt collector to cease all communication with the consumer, a consumer's request to opt out under § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(D) is not a request to cease all communication with respect to the debt under § 1006.6(c)(1).

6(d)(4)(ii)(E)

The notice-and-opt-out procedures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B) would not have covered a debt collector who knew or should have known that the email address to which the debt collector sent an email was provided by the consumer's employer. In support of this proposed limitation, the Bureau explained that employer-provided email addresses present a heightened risk of third-party disclosure because many employers have a legal right to read messages sent and received by employees on employer-provided email accounts, and some employers exercise that right. The Bureau expressed concern that, unlike a consumer's affirmative decision to contact a debt collector using an employer-provided email address, a consumer's failure to opt out of a debt collector's use of an employer-provided email address after receiving an opt-out notice may not indicate that the consumer has assessed the risk of third-party disclosure to be low.[313]

Consumer advocate commenters generally supported the Bureau's proposal to exclude employer-provided email addresses from the proposed notice-and-opt-out procedures, while industry commenters generally opposed it. Many industry commenters raised operational concerns, stating that there is generally no way to know whether an email address is employer provided. These commenters stated that no database of employer-provided email addresses exists, and that reviewing domain names is a labor-intensive and manual process, as well as insufficient to determine whether an address is employer provided. For example, an “.edu” domain name may indicate that a consumer is either a student or an employee of an educational institution. According to these commenters, because it is difficult to distinguish employer-provided email addresses from personal ones, excluding employer-provided email addresses from the notice-and-opt-out procedures would create an implementation problem that would discourage debt collectors from using the procedures, thus stifling electronic communications and harming consumers.

In addition to these operational concerns, industry commenters noted that consumers often disclose employer-provided email addresses to creditors, including on account-opening documents. According to these commenters, a consumer who has disclosed an employer-provided email address to a creditor has chosen to communicate about the account by email, and that choice should be honored even after the account is transferred to a debt collector. Conversely, these commenters argued, a consumer who does not want to receive debt collection communications on an employer-provided email account can decline to provide the creditor with such an email address.

In addition, several industry commenters argued that, although the Bureau based its proposal to exclude employer-provided email addresses from the safe harbor on its belief that many employers have the right to monitor emails received on employer-provided accounts, the Bureau presented no evidence justifying that belief. Relatedly, an industry commenter argued that the Bureau's concern about employer monitoring is misplaced because a personal email account may be monitored by a consumer's commercial email provider. Industry commenters also argued that other proposed rule provisions—such as the requirement in proposed § 1006.6(e) to include, in all electronic communications, instructions for opting out of such communications—would sufficiently protect consumers who receive unwanted emails on employer-provided accounts.

As the Bureau noted in the proposal, many employers have a legal right to read, and frequently do read, messages sent or received by employees on employer-provided email accounts.[314] The Bureau disagrees that a debt collector who sends an email to an employer-provided email address should be entitled to a safe harbor from civil liability as long as the consumer provided that address to the creditor. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(i), a consumer's decision to communicate by email with a creditor does not, without more, suggest that the risk of third-party disclosure is particularly low should a debt collector send an email to the same email address. Although the Bureau agrees that proposed § 1006.6(e)—which the Bureau is finalizing largely as proposed in final § 1006.6(e)—would help limit the risk of third-party disclosure by enabling consumers to opt Start Printed Page 76788out of electronic communications easily, the Bureau notes that the protection afforded by § 1006.6(e) is effective only after the debt collector has sent an email to the consumer and the consumer's privacy interest has already been compromised.

As for the observation that a personal email account may be monitored or scanned by a commercial email provider, the Bureau believes that monitoring by an employer is distinguishable from monitoring or scanning by a non-employer email provider. Congress and the courts have recognized that a consumer may suffer significant harm, including loss of employment, if an employer learns that the consumer has a debt in collection.[315] Although some commercial email providers monitor or scan consumer email accounts to deliver targeted advertisements or services through associated applications,[316] this type of activity generally does not threaten a consumer's employment or reputation in the same way.

The Bureau recognizes that distinguishing between employer-provided and personal email addresses presents a practical challenge for debt collectors. The Bureau is aware of no database of employer-provided email addresses that debt collectors can consult, and reviewing domain names will not always answer whether an email address is personal or employer provided. The Bureau finds, however, that most employer-provided email addresses have domain names that are not available to the general public and that it is relatively straightforward for a debt collector to distinguish domain names that are publicly available from those that are not. The Bureau also finds that, if employer-provided email addresses have domain names that are publicly available, it will be difficult (absent actual knowledge) for a debt collector to distinguish such an email address from a personal one.

For these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(E) to maintain the exclusion of most employer-provided email addresses from the notice-and-opt-out safe harbor, but also to clarify how debt collectors can distinguish between employer-provided and personal email addresses for purposes of satisfying the safe harbor. Specifically, § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(E) provides that a debt collector may obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure if, among other things, the debt collector communicated by sending an email to an email address with a domain name that is available for use by the general public, unless the debt collector knows the address is provided by the consumer's employer. The Bureau believes that § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(E) effectively excludes most employer-provided email addresses from the notice-and-opt-out safe harbor, thereby largely avoiding the third-party disclosure risks associated with such addresses while imposing a manageable operational burden on debt collectors. To the extent a debt collector regards the limitation in § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(E) as overbroad—because, for example, it does not cover a debt collector who sends an email to an “.edu” address—the Bureau reiterates that a debt collector may communicate by email without following the procedures in § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii). Such a debt collector would, however, lose the protection of the safe harbor (unless the debt collector's use of the email address otherwise satisfies the requirements of § 1006.6(d)(3)).

The Bureau also is adopting new comments 6(d)(4)(ii)(E)-1 and -2 to clarify certain aspects of final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(E). Comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(E)-1 clarifies that the domain name of an email address is available for use by the general public when multiple members of the general public are permitted to use the same domain name, whether for free or through a paid subscription. Such a name includes, for example, john.doe@gmail.com and john.doe@yahoo.com. Such a name does not include one that is reserved for use by specific registrants, such as a domain name branded for use by a particular commercial entity (e.g., john.doe@springsidemortgage.com) or reserved for particular types of institutions (e.g., john.doe@agency.gov, john.doe@university.edu, or john.doe@nonprofit.org). Comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(E)-2 clarifies that, for purposes of § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(E), a debt collector knows that an email address is provided by the consumer's employer if any person has informed the debt collector that the address is employer provided. Comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(E)-2 further clarifies that § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii)(E) does not require a debt collector to conduct a manual review of consumer email addresses to determine whether an email address might be employer provided.

6(d)(4)(iii) Procedures Based on Communication by the Prior Debt Collector

Proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(C) (the “creditor-or-prior-debt-collector-use” method) provided that a debt collector could obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure if, in addition to complying with § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii), the debt collector maintained procedures to reasonably confirm and document that: (1) The debt collector communicated with the consumer using a personal email address that the creditor or a prior debt collector obtained from the consumer to communicate about the debt; (2) the creditor or the prior debt collector recently sent communications about the debt to that email address; and (3) the consumer did not ask the creditor or the prior debt collector to stop such communications.[317]

Many consumer advocate commenters opposed proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(C) on the ground that, when consumers provide email addresses to creditors, they typically do not think about the Start Printed Page 76789possibilities that they will fail to make payments, that the account will be transferred to a debt collector, and that the debt collector will use the email address to communicate electronically. In addition, these commenters noted, years may pass, and a consumer's circumstances may change, between the time a consumer provides an email address to a creditor and the time a debt collector uses that email address to try to collect a debt. Thus, according to these commenters, a consumer's decision to provide an email address to a creditor says little about the risk of third-party disclosure if a debt collector uses that email address at some later date, and a debt collector who followed the procedures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(C) could not claim that it lacked reason to anticipate a third-party disclosure. The Bureau agrees with these concerns and notes that there are other reasons why a consumer might provide an email address to a creditor but not to a debt collector. For example, a consumer may conclude that the potential risk to a creditor's reputation and the potential risk of losing the consumer as a customer—risks that may not exist, or that may exist to a lesser extent, for debt collectors—constrain the creditor from misusing the email address. The Bureau therefore declines to finalize a safe harbor based solely on the creditor's prior use of an email address.[318] For the reasons discussed below, however, the Bureau is finalizing other aspects of proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(C), with revisions, as § 1006.6(d)(4)(iii).

First, like the proposal, the final rule provides a debt collector in certain circumstances with a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when sending an email to an email address obtained and used by a prior debt collector. However, unlike the proposal, a safe harbor is available under § 1006.6(d)(4)(iii) only if the debt collector uses an email address obtained by a prior debt collector in accordance with either § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) or (ii). As already discussed, the Bureau determines that an email address obtained by a debt collector pursuant to the procedures in § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) or (ii) presents a relatively low risk of unintentional third-party disclosure.[319] Second, like the proposal, the final rule requires that a prior debt collector actually have communicated with the consumer about the debt using the email address the current debt collector intends to use.[320] However, unlike the proposal, a safe harbor is available under § 1006.6(d)(4)(iii) only if the immediately prior debt collector—i.e., the debt collector immediately preceding the current one—used the email address to communicate with the consumer about the debt. A consumer's personal circumstances may change over time, and limiting § 1006.6(d)(4)(iii) to email addresses used by the immediately prior debt collector decreases this risk in some circumstances. Third, the final rule requires that, for a debt collector to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability under § 1006.6(d)(4)(iii), the consumer must not have asked the immediately prior debt collector to stop using the email address for debt collection communications.

Accordingly, final § 1006.6(d)(4)(iii) provides that a debt collector may obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when sending an email to an email address if: (1) Any prior debt collector obtained the email address in accordance with § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) or (ii); (2) the immediately prior debt collector used the email address to communicate with the consumer about the debt; and (3) the consumer did not opt out of such communications.[321] The Bureau is adopting new comment 6(d)(4)(iii)-1 to clarify that, for purposes of § 1006.6(d)(4)(iii), the immediately prior debt collector is the debt collector immediately preceding the current debt collector. The Bureau also is adopting new comment 6(d)(4)(iii)-2 to provide examples illustrating the rule.

6(d)(5) Procedures for Telephone Numbers for Text Messages

As noted above, the final rule reorganizes proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i) by separating email procedures and text message procedures. Final § 1006.6(d)(5) describes the procedures that a debt collector may use to obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when communicating by text message. The final text message procedures are discussed in detail in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(5)(i) and (ii).

Proposed Provisions Not Finalized

The proposal identified opt-out procedures (proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(B)) and creditor-and-prior-debt-collector-use procedures (proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(C)) that a debt collector could use to reduce the risk of liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when sending emails or text messages to a consumer. The Bureau is not finalizing either set of procedures as to text messages.

As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(5)(i), the practice of reassigning telephone numbers increases the risk of third-party disclosure when a debt collector sends a text message to a telephone number. The Bureau determines that the text message procedures it is finalizing in § 1006.6(d)(5)(i) and (ii)—which, as explained below, resemble an opt-in approach—address the risk posed by reassignment comprehensively. The Bureau will monitor debt collectors' use of the text message procedures in § 1006.6(d)(5) and may revisit at a later date whether additional procedures, including procedures similar to those in final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii) and (iii), can be designed to address the risk of third-party disclosure. Although the Bureau is not finalizing notice-and-opt-out or prior-use safe harbor procedures for text messages, the Bureau notes that the final rule does not prohibit debt collectors from communicating with consumers by text message outside of the safe harbors.

6(d)(5)(i)

As proposed, § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A) (the “consumer-use” method) for text messages provided that a debt collector could obtain a safe harbor from civil Start Printed Page 76790liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure if, in addition to complying with § 1006.6(d)(3)(ii), the debt collector maintained procedures to reasonably confirm and document that the debt collector sent a text message to the consumer using a telephone number that the consumer recently used to contact the debt collector for purposes other than opting out of electronic communications.[322] As discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing the proposed consumer-use method for text messages as § 1006.6(d)(5)(i), with modifications and additions to address comments received, and with revisions for clarity.

The Bureau based the proposed consumer-use procedures for text messages on the same assumption as the proposed consumer-use procedures for email addresses, i.e., that a debt collector may not have a reason to anticipate a third-party disclosure when sending a text message to a telephone number that the consumer recently used to communicate with the debt collector. The Bureau reasoned that, as with email addresses, consumers generally are better positioned than debt collectors to determine if third parties have access to a particular telephone number for text messages.[323]

Feedback from industry and consumer advocate commenters regarding the Bureau's reasoning was similar to feedback regarding the consumer-use procedures for email addresses, with industry generally supporting the Bureau's reasoning and consumer advocates generally opposing it for the reasons discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(i). Also for the reasons discussed in that section-by-section analysis, the Bureau determines that a debt collector who sends a text message to a telephone number that the consumer has used to communicate with the debt collector by text message generally would lack reason to anticipate a third-party disclosure. However, for the reasons discussed in § 1006.14(h)(1), a debt collector could not continue to use a telephone number for text messages if the consumer asked the debt collector not to engage in such communications.

An industry commenter and a group of consumer advocate commenters asked whether the proposed consumer-use method—which would have provided a safe harbor for text messages sent to a telephone number that the consumer had used “to contact” the debt collector—would protect a debt collector who sent a text message to a telephone number that the consumer had used to call (but not to text) the debt collector. The group of consumer advocate commenters argued that a call from a telephone number does not invite a text message to that number, while the industry commenter simply asked for clarification. Because a consumer who places a telephone call to a debt collector generally can control who listens to the conversation by initiating or engaging in the call in private, the Bureau does not believe that a consumer's decision to call a debt collector, without more, generally suggests that the risk of third-party disclosure is low if the debt collector sends a text message to the same telephone number. Therefore, the text of § 1006.6(d)(5)(i), and new comment 6(d)(5)(i)-1, clarify that the consumer-use method for text messages does not apply if the consumer only used the telephone number to communicate with the debt collector about the debt by telephone call.

An industry commenter asked whether, under the proposed consumer-use method, a debt collector would be protected from liability when responding to a consumer by text message if, after attempting to communicate with the consumer by telephone, the debt collector received a text message from the consumer asking “Who is this? What is this about? Please text me back.” The Bureau determines that a consumer who responds to a missed telephone call by sending a text message asking “who is this? what is this about?” and requesting a return text message likely does not know that the underlying communication or attempted communication was from a debt collector or related to a debt. Such a request therefore would not, without more, suggest that the risk of third-party disclosure is low if the debt collector responded by text message.[324] For this reason, the Bureau is finalizing the consumer-use method for text messages with a clarification that it applies only if the consumer used the telephone number to communicate with the debt collector about the debt. Accordingly, § 1006.6(d)(5)(i) does not cover a debt collector who sends a text message to a consumer after receiving a text message from the consumer asking “Who is this? What is this about? Please text me back.”

The Bureau received numerous comments regarding proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A)'s recency requirement, i.e., the requirement that the consumer have recently used the telephone number to contact the debt collector. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(i), multiple industry, consumer, and consumer advocate commenters confirmed the Bureau's understanding, as discussed in the proposal, that telephone numbers are regularly reassigned. Consumer advocate commenters thus generally supported applying the recency requirement to telephone numbers, and industry commenters generally did not oppose doing so.

Consumer advocate and industry commenters both argued, however, that the Bureau should define the term “recently,” with consumer advocates noting that a definition would better protect consumers and industry commenters noting that failing to define the term would create unnecessary litigation risk. A consumer advocate commenter urged the Bureau to define recent as within the past 30 days to reflect the month-to-month nature of many pay-as-you-go mobile telephone plans. This commenter also expressly opposed defining recent as within the past year, arguing that a period of this length fails to recognize that low-income consumers in financial crisis may change telephone numbers multiple times in a single year. Some industry commenters argued that 30 days would adequately protect consumers while allowing debt collectors sufficient time to respond to consumer inquiries. A few industry commenters argued in favor of 60 days without explaining their reasoning, and others supported a one-year period.

As discussed in the proposal, and as confirmed by commenters, millions of telephone numbers are disconnected and made available for reassignment each year, increasing the risk of third-party disclosure when a debt collector sends a text message.[325] For this reason, the Bureau is finalizing a recency requirement as part of the consumer-use Start Printed Page 76791method for text messages. The Bureau agrees with commenters that the final rule should better define what constitutes “recently.” In this regard, the Bureau notes that the FCC has established a 45-day minimum aging period and a 90-day maximum aging period for telephone number reassignments.[326] In other words, no fewer than 45 days and no more than 90 days may pass between the time a carrier disconnects a telephone number and the time it reassigns the number to a new consumer. The Bureau does not have reason to believe that a significant number of consumers have their telephone numbers disconnected the same day they contact a debt collector. Accordingly, the Bureau believes that basing the text message recency requirement on the 45-day minimum-aging period would be unnecessarily restrictive. At the same time, because all disconnected telephone numbers must be reassigned within 90 days, the Bureau believes that basing the text message recency requirement on the 90-day maximum aging period would not adequately address the risk of third-party disclosure posed by reassignment. The Bureau therefore is finalizing a 60-day recency requirement as part of the consumer-use procedures for text messages. The Bureau finds that a 60-day period will protect consumers against the risk of reassignment, facilitate the responsible use of text message communications in debt collection, and provide stakeholders with clarity.

An alternative way to address the risk of third-party disclosure posed by the reassignment of telephone numbers is to require debt collectors to confirm that a telephone number belongs to a consumer before sending a text message to that number, such as by consulting a reliable third-party database. Indeed, several industry commenters urged the Bureau to incorporate the use of a third-party database into the procedures. For example, several industry commenters argued that debt collectors should receive a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when using any telephone number for text messages as long as the telephone number has recently been verified or validated as accurate. One industry commenter would have defined validated to mean that a debt collector had confirmed the accuracy of the telephone number using a third-party database.[327]

The FCC has observed that, although commercial databases currently exist to help callers determine whether a telephone number has been reassigned, these databases are not comprehensive.[328] For this reason, in December 2018, the FCC announced the creation of a new database to serve as a single, comprehensive source for determining whether a telephone number has been reassigned.[329] The purpose of the database, known as the Reassigned Numbers Database, is to help curb the proliferation of unwanted telephone calls directed to reassigned telephone numbers.[330] Once operational, the database will contain reassigned number information from each provider that obtains North American Numbering Plan U.S. geographic numbers and toll-free numbers.[331] Users will be able to consult the database to determine whether a telephone number has been permanently disconnected since a particular date—such as the date the consumer last consented to communicate by text message or the date of the consumer's most recent text message—and therefore no longer belongs to the consumer.[332] If the database shows that a particular telephone number has been disconnected, then a debt collector has reason to anticipate that sending a text message to that number will result in a third-party disclosure. Thus, once operational, the FCC's Reassigned Numbers Database can help debt collectors comply with FDCPA section 805(b) and the final rule's prohibition on third-party disclosures.

Accordingly, the final rule permits debt collectors sending text messages to use a complete and accurate database to verify that a particular telephone number continues to belong to the consumer. Debt collectors may rely either on this method or on the receipt of a recent text message from the consumer. Comment 6(d)(5)-1 clarifies that, for purposes of the consumer-use procedures, the FCC's Reassigned Numbers Database qualifies as a complete and accurate database,[333] as does any commercially available database that is substantially similar in terms of completeness and accuracy to the FCC's Reassigned Numbers Database.[334] The Bureau recognizes that, as a result of technological developments, debt collectors and others may develop new methods to confirm whether a telephone number has been reassigned, some of which may offer a level of certainty comparable to consulting a complete and accurate database. The Bureau will monitor the market for any such developments and consider whether to modify or expand the text message safe harbor procedures in the future.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(5)(i), which provides that a debt collector may obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when sending a text message to a telephone number if the consumer used the telephone number to communicate with the debt collector about the debt by text message, the consumer has not since opted out of text message communications to that telephone number, and within the past 60 days either: (1) The consumer sent a text message to the debt collector from that telephone number; or (2) the debt collector confirmed, using a complete and accurate database, that the telephone number has not been reassigned from the consumer to another user since the date of the consumer's most recent text message to the debt collector from that telephone number. As noted, the Bureau also is adopting new comment 6(d)(5)-1 to clarify the meaning of complete and accurate database, and new comment 6(d)(5)(i)-1 to clarify that § 1006.6(d)(5)(i) does not apply if the consumer used the telephone number to communicate with the debt collector about the debt only by telephone call.Start Printed Page 76792

6(d)(5)(ii)

Several industry commenters requested that the Bureau expand the procedures in proposed § 1006.6(d)(3)(i)(A), or create new procedures, to protect a debt collector who communicates with a consumer by text message after receiving the consumer's permission to do so. The Bureau believes that, if a consumer has consented to a debt collector's use of a particular telephone number for text messages and has not withdrawn that consent, the debt collector generally does not have reason to anticipate that using the telephone number to communicate with the consumer by text message will lead to a third-party disclosure—as long as the debt collector has taken steps to confirm that the telephone number has not been reassigned.[335] For this reason, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(d)(5)(ii), which provides that a debt collector may obtain a safe harbor from civil liability for an unintentional third-party disclosure when sending a text message to a telephone number if the debt collector received directly from the consumer prior consent to use the telephone number to communicate with the consumer about the debt by text message, the consumer has not since withdrawn that consent, and within the past 60 days the debt collector either: (1) Obtained the prior consent or renewed consent from the consumer; or (2) confirmed, using a complete and accurate database, that the telephone number has not been reassigned from the consumer to another user since the date of the consumer's most recent consent to use that telephone number to communicate about the debt by text message. The additional steps to confirm that the telephone number has not been reassigned are similar to those in § 1006.6(d)(5)(i), and, like those steps, are designed to increase the likelihood that the telephone number continues to belong to the consumer when the debt collector communicates by text message.

As noted in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(5)(i), new comment 6(d)(5)-1 clarifies that the FCC's Reassigned Numbers Database qualifies as a complete and accurate database for purposes of § 1006.6(d)(5)(ii), as does any commercially available database that is substantially similar in terms of completeness and accuracy to the FCC's Reassigned Numbers Database. The Bureau also is adopting new commentary to clarify the meaning of prior consent provided directly to a debt collector in the context of § 1006.6(d)(5)(ii). Specifically, new comment 6(d)(5)(ii)-1 refers to comment 6(d)(4)(i)(B)-1 for guidance concerning how a consumer may provide prior consent directly to a debt collector generally, and to comment 6(d)(4)(i)(B)-2 for guidance concerning when a debt collector may treat a consumer who provides a telephone number for text messages as having provided prior consent directly to the debt collector.

6(e) Opt-Out Notice for Electronic Communications or Attempts To Communicate

The use of electronic media for debt collection communications can further the interests of both consumers and debt collectors. As the Bureau explained in the proposal, however, electronic communications also pose potential consumer harms.[336] One potential harm relates to consumer harassment. Because the marginal cost of transmitting electronic communications to consumers is low, particularly when compared to mail communications, debt collectors have less economic incentive to limit the number of such communications. Repeated or continuous debt collection communications can have the natural consequence of harassing, oppressing, or abusing the recipient.[337]

Another potential consumer harm relates to communication costs. As explained in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(3), consumers without unlimited text messaging plans may incur a charge each time they receive a text message, or each time they receive a text message that exceeds a specified limit. Some consumers without unlimited data plans also may incur a charge when they receive emails.

A way to help consumers address potentially harassing or costly electronic communications is to provide them with a convenient way to opt out of such communications.[338] Thus, proposed § 1006.6(e) would have required debt collectors to describe, clearly and conspicuously in every electronic communication, how consumers can opt out of receiving such communications directed at a specific email address, telephone number for text messages, or other electronic-medium address.[339] It also would have prohibited a debt collector from requiring, directly or indirectly, that the consumer, to opt out, pay any fee to the debt collector or provide any information other than the email address, telephone number for text messages, or other electronic-medium address subject to the opt-out request. In response to feedback, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.6(e) with modifications for clarity as described below. Among other things, final § 1006.6(e) increases protection for consumers and increases clarity for debt collectors by specifying that the opt-out method debt collectors provide must be reasonable and simple.

Opt-Out Concept in General

Most industry commenters supported proposed § 1006.6(e) although, as explained below, many industry commenters also requested that the Bureau clarify certain aspects of the proposal. Several industry commenters appeared to oppose proposed § 1006.6(e) on the ground that it would make electronic communications more difficult, and one suggested that, instead of requiring debt collectors to provide opt-out instructions in each electronic Start Printed Page 76793communication, the Bureau should allow debt collectors to inform consumers periodically of the right to opt out, or in a standard notice on the debt collector's website. The Bureau determines that periodically notifying consumers of the right to opt out, or requiring consumers to find and review a notice on a debt collector's website, does not adequately protect consumers from potentially harassing and costly electronic communications. A consumer who finds electronic communications harassing or costly should not endure additional harassment or cost while waiting for a debt collector to explain how to opt out, and a consumer should not bear the burden and risk of locating, reviewing, and using an opt-out notice that appears only on a debt collector's website. Nor does the Bureau believe that allowing consumers to opt out of electronic communications makes such communications more difficult. Presumably, many consumers who opt out of electronic communications with a debt collector would not respond to such communications even if opting out were difficult or impossible.[340]

Although, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4), many consumer advocate commenters and multiple government and academic commenters urged the Bureau to adopt an opt-in system for electronic communications, they also supported allowing consumers to opt out of electronic communications once such communications have begun. These commenters argued that the ability to opt out of electronic communications is critical to prevent harassment, particularly because the Bureau did not include emails and texts messages in proposed § 1006.14(b)'s frequency limits.[341] Consumer advocate commenters also argued that enabling consumers to opt out of electronic communications is especially important for certain groups of consumers, such as those who are contacted using an employer-provided email address or telephone number and wish to end those contacts immediately, those who lack reliable access to a particular medium of electronic communication and therefore prefer to opt out of communications using that medium, and those who are contacted erroneously and prefer to opt out rather than to call the debt collector.

However, many consumer and consumer advocate commenters, and several government and academic commenters, also expressed concern that proposed § 1006.6(e), on its own, would not sufficiently protect consumers from the risks of electronic debt collection communications. For example, some commenters noted that, if a consumer was worried about phishers and scammers, the consumer might be reluctant to exercise an opt-out right, particularly one that required clicking on a link or replying to an email or text message from an unknown sender. Other commenters expressed concern that a debt collector might not honor a consumer's opt-out request, pointing to the difficulty reported by some consumers when trying to opt out of electronic communications outside of the debt collection context and to the Bureau's consumer survey, which showed that 75 percent of surveyed consumers who asked a creditor or debt collector to stop contacting them (orally or in writing) reported that the creditor or debt collector attempted to contact them anyway.[342] An academic commenter and a local government commenter also asserted that opt-out procedures generally create barriers to consumer action and that certain vulnerable populations, such as older consumers, might have difficulty navigating even relatively simply opt-out procedures.

The Bureau determines that a way to address potentially harassing or costly electronic communications is to provide consumers with a convenient way to opt out of such communications. In response to concerns that the ability to opt out, on its own, does not sufficiently protect consumers from the risks of electronic communications, the Bureau notes that § 1006.6(e) is one of several provisions in the final rule designed to address those risks. For example, § 1006.6(d)(3) through (5) describes procedures to limit third-party disclosures when sending an email or text message; § 1006.14(a) prohibits a debt collector from communicating electronically in a manner that has the natural consequence of harassing, oppressing, or abusing any person in connection with the collection of a debt; § 1006.14(h) prohibits a debt collector from using a medium of communication if a person has requested that the debt collector not use that medium; and §§ 1006.18(d) and 1006.22(f)(4) include protections regarding debt collectors' use of social media.

Ease of Use of Opt-Out Instructions

Many consumer and consumer advocate commenters, several academic commenters, a group of State Attorneys General, and other State and local government commenters noted that proposed § 1006.6(e) would have required a debt collector to describe how to opt out, but it would not have required the opt-out mechanism to take a particular form. For example, these commenters expressed concern that, as drafted, proposed § 1006.6(e) would have permitted a debt collector to construct a complicated opt-out mechanism, such as requiring a consumer to opt out by mail only, or by telephone call during particular hours. Several consumer advocate commenters observed that, even if a debt collector does not intend to make it difficult to opt out, an unnecessarily limited opt-out method may be problematic for some consumers. For example, if a debt collector inadvertently emailed a consumer at work, an opt-out method that required a return email from that email address could be problematic for a consumer whose employer-provided account is monitored and who would therefore prefer to contact the debt collector by telephone or through another communication medium. Similarly, if a debt collector required opt-out requests to be communicated by telephone during particular hours, those hours might not be convenient for a consumer. A group of State Attorneys General and a group of consumer advocate commenters argued that, in this respect, proposed § 1006.6(e) was less protective of consumers than other Start Printed Page 76794consumer protection laws and regulations. For example, the CAN-SPAM Act requires email marketers to provide a reply email or internet-based means by which an opt-out request may be sent by the consumer,[343] and the FCC allows consumers to revoke consent under the TCPA in any manner that clearly expresses a desire not to receive further messages.[344]

Consumer, consumer advocate, government, and academic commenters who urged the Bureau to strengthen proposed § 1006.6(e) offered several suggestions. Many such commenters urged the Bureau to require a debt collector to accept an opt-out request in the same medium in which the debt collector communicated with the consumer and the opt-out instructions were delivered. Thus, for example, a consumer should be permitted to opt out of email communications by replying to a debt collector's email. Other commenters urged the Bureau to require a debt collector to accept an opt-out request in any medium that the debt collector uses to communicate with consumers. Thus, for example, a debt collector who communicates with consumers by telephone, email, and mail would have to accept an opt-out request submitted by any of those methods, even if the request is in response to an email. Other commenters argued that the final rule should adopt a more general standard, such by as requiring debt collectors to allow consumers to opt out using any “convenient method” or any “reasonable method.”

Relatedly, several consumer advocate commenters urged the Bureau to strengthen proposed § 1006.6(e) by elaborating generally on the procedural and disclosure requirements that debt collectors must follow. For example, a consumer advocate commenter urged the Bureau to require debt collectors to provide consumers with a hyperlink allowing them to opt out of electronic communications. A group of consumer advocate commenters urged the Bureau to require debt collectors to list all the ways a consumer may opt out of electronic communications, and to do so in textual rather than graphic format to ensure that the information is available to visually impaired consumers who use text reading tools and to consumers who use email programs that do not download graphics. Other commenters suggested that the Bureau require debt collectors to disclose that the right to opt out can be exercised at any time, and to ensure that the disclosure appears in the body of a communication where it can be seen without scrolling down.

The Bureau agrees that the ability to opt out of electronic communications affords little protection if the costs to consumers of opting out prevent or unduly hinder them from making that choice. Accordingly, final § 1006.6(e) clarifies that a debt collector must describe a reasonable and simple method by which the consumer can opt out of further electronic communications or attempts to communicate by the debt collector to a particular electronic address or telephone number.[345] The Bureau also is adopting commentary providing examples, informed by suggestions from commenters, of opt-out methods that comply with the reasonable-and-simple standard. Specifically, comment 6(e)-1 clarifies that, in the context of text message communications, the standard is satisfied if a consumer can opt out by replying “stop” to the debt collector. Comment 6(e)-1 also clarifies that, in the context of email communications, the standard is satisfied if a consumer can opt out by clicking on a link in the email or replying with the word “stop” in the subject line. The Bureau expects that most debt collectors will follow these examples when they communicate electronically with consumers.

Permissible Fees and Required Information in Connection With Opt-Out Requests

Proposed § 1006.6(e) would have prohibited a debt collector from requiring, directly or indirectly, that the consumer, in order to opt out, pay any fee to the debt collector. A group of consumer advocate commenters noted that, because this prohibition was limited to paying a fee to a debt collector, a debt collector could still require the consumer to pay a fee to a third party. For example, the commenters noted, proposed § 1006.6(e) would appear to have allowed debt collectors to require a certified letter to opt out, with the fee paid to the postal service. In addition, these commenters observed, a debt collector who requires consumers to send a text message to opt out would force consumers with limited text messaging plans to incur a charge, with the fee paid to the consumer's telephone provider. An industry commenter recommended that debt collectors include, in all text messages to consumers, a statement that message rates may apply.

Final § 1006.6(e) retains the prohibition on fees as proposed. The consumer advocate commenters' concern about the cost of an opt-out notice sent by certified mail (and other similarly inconvenient media) is addressed by § 1006.6(e)'s reasonable-and-simple requirement; an opt-out method that requires a consumer to use certified mail (which entails the consumer arranging for a special form of delivery that is costlier than ordinary mail and generally unwarranted under the circumstances) is not reasonable and simple. Section 1006.6(e) does not, however, prohibit a consumer from incurring a fee for sending an opt-out request by text message as long as such fee is not paid, directly or indirectly, to the debt collector. Because such a consumer has already expressed a willingness to incur the costs of text message communications, the Bureau does not believe it is necessary to prohibit consumers from incurring such costs in § 1006.6(e). And, as discussed in detail in the section-by-section analyses of §§ 1006.6(b)(1) and 1006.14(h), a consumer may control communications in other ways, including by, for example, informing a debt collector by telephone that the consumer does not want to receive text messages. The Bureau also does not believe it is necessary to require debt collectors to note, in text messages to consumers, that message rates may apply. The Bureau understands from consumer advocate commenters that consumers with limited text messaging plans generally are aware that they may be charged for text messages.

Proposed § 1006.6(e) also would have prohibited a debt collector from requiring that the consumer, in order to opt out, provide any information other than the email address, telephone number for text messages, or other electronic-medium address subject to the opt-out request. Federal government agency staff encouraged the Bureau to ensure that this prohibition would not inadvertently prevent consumers from also sharing their opt-out preferences. The Bureau intended to allow debt collectors to solicit a consumer's opt-out preferences, and the final rule expressly adds the consumer's opt-out preferences to the list of information that a debt collector may require the consumer to provide.Start Printed Page 76795

Processing Period for Opt-Out Requests

Multiple industry commenters and one consumer advocate commenter requested that the Bureau specify the time period within which a debt collector would be required to process a consumer's request to opt out. One industry commenter suggested that the Bureau require debt collectors to process opt-out requests within a “reasonable” period of time, while another industry commenter suggested a 72-hour processing period. Several industry commenters suggested a 10-day processing period, which is the period the FTC has set for processing opt-out requests under the CAN-SPAM Act. An industry commenter who presently communicates with consumers by email stated that it processes opt-out requests in less than 10 minutes, another industry commenter predicted that debt collectors would be able to process opt-out requests in 24 to 48 hours, and another industry commenter predicted that debt collectors would be able to process opt-out requests in fewer than 10 days. A consumer advocate commenter proposed a processing period of 24 hours, arguing that the frequency of some debt collection communications means that a short compliance period is necessary to ensure that a consumer's opt-out request is honored.

The Bureau recognizes that any maximum processing period for opt-out requests under § 1006.6(e) must be short enough to protect consumers from unwanted electronic communications but long enough for compliance to be practical. Given the disparate periods of time suggested by commenters, and the fact that few debt collectors communicate electronically and process electronic opt-out requests today, the final rule does not specify the period of time afforded a debt collector to process an opt-out request under § 1006.6(e). However, depending on the circumstances, a debt collector who unintentionally communicates with a consumer electronically after receiving a consumer's request to opt out but before processing the request may have a bona fide error defense to civil liability under FDCPA section 813(c). For example, if a debt collector who schedules an email to be sent to a consumer later receives an opt-out request from the consumer but sends the previously scheduled email to the consumer before the request can be processed (notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures to avoid such an error), the debt collector may have a bona fide error defense to civil liability under FDCPA section 813(c).[346]

Other Requests for Clarification

The requirements of final § 1006.6(e), like the requirements of proposed § 1006.6(e), apply to all electronic communications using a specific email address, telephone number for text messages, or other electronic-medium address. A group of consumer advocate commenters expressed concern that direct messages sent using certain social media platforms—such as platforms that allow users to search by name rather than by email address, telephone number, or another account identifier—might not be covered by proposed § 1006.6(e) because those platforms may not use electronic-medium addresses. These commenters urged the Bureau to clarify that opt-out notices are required for all electronic communications. The language of § 1006.6(e) makes clear that it applies to all electronic communications, regardless of whether that particular form of electronic communication is specified in the rule. This includes direct messaging communications on social media and communications in an application on a website, mobile telephone, or computer. It also includes electronic communications using platforms that allow users to search by name or another identifier rather than by email address or telephone number.

Several industry commenters asked the Bureau to clarify the scope of an opt-out request made under § 1006.6(e). For example, some industry commenters asked whether a § 1006.6(e) opt-out request applies to all of a consumer's debts being collected by a particular debt collector or only to the specific debt about which the debt collector communicated. Other industry commenters asked whether a § 1006.6(e) opt-out request applies to all electronic communication media or only to the medium of electronic communication (or the particular address or telephone number) used by the debt collector to communicate with the consumer. Some industry commenters asked whether a § 1006.6(e) opt-out request should be treated as a request to cease all communication regardless of medium, while other industry commenters asked whether a consumer's request that a debt collector cease sending text messages to a particular telephone number should also be treated as request to cease telephone calls to that number. A consumer advocate commenter and a local government commenter asked whether a § 1006.6(e) opt-out request made to one debt collector binds future debt collectors collecting the same debt.

Consistent with proposed § 1006.6(e), final § 1006.6(e) requires a debt collector to describe how to opt out of further electronic communications or attempts to communicate by the debt collector to a particular address or telephone number. In general, the Bureau determines that a consumer who requests that a debt collector cease using a particular address or telephone number to communicate electronically about one of the consumer's debts likely wishes the debt collector to cease using that particular address or telephone number to communicate about any other debt being collected by the debt collector. Comment 14(h)(1)-3.ii addresses this issue further.

Moreover, absent evidence to the contrary, a consumer's request to opt out of electronic communications to a particular address or telephone number is not a request to opt out of electronic communications to a different address or telephone number, a request to opt out of all electronic communications, or a request to opt out of communications altogether. A consumer who objects to receiving electronic communications sent to a particular address or telephone number (because, for example, that address or number has been provided by the consumer's employer or is subject to usage fees) may not object to a debt collector's use of a different address or number or to a debt collector's use of a different medium of communication.

Similarly, absent evidence to the contrary, a consumer's request to opt out of text messages to a particular telephone number is not a request to opt out of telephone calls to that number. A consumer who objects to receiving text messages from a debt collector (because, for example, the consumer is charged for each such message) may not object to receiving telephone calls. Nor does a consumer's request to opt out under § 1006.6(e) bind a subsequent debt Start Printed Page 76796collector.[347] A consumer who objects to one debt collector's use of electronic communications might not object to another debt collector's use of such communications if, for example, the timing and frequency of the communications differ or the consumer's personal circumstances have changed.

In the proposal, the Bureau requested comment on whether to identify in the final rule a non-exclusive list of words or phrases—such as “stop,” “unsubscribe,” “end,” “quit,” or “cancel”—that express an opt-out instruction. Several industry commenters requested that the final rule include such a list. Two industry commenters argued that the final rule should allow debt collectors to identify for consumers the exact words needed to opt out and that, if a consumer uses different words, a debt collector should have more time to process the request. Another industry commenter suggested that the Bureau identify an exclusive list of words that express an opt-out request. An industry commenter suggested that debt collectors should be required to treat only two words as expressing an opt-out instruction: “stop” and “opt out.” A group of consumer advocate commenters urged the Bureau to require debt collectors to honor standard opt-out phrases, such as “stop,” “unsubscribe,” “end,” “quit,” and “cancel.”

The Bureau determines that words such as “stop,” “unsubscribe,” “end,” “quit,” or “cancel” generally express a consumer's intent to opt out. But these are not the only words that express such an intent. A consumer may respond to a debt collector's electronic communication with an email or text message that makes the consumer's desire to opt out clear without using one of these words. Given the variety of ways in which a consumer may express an intent to opt out, the Bureau declines to identify an exclusive list of words that express such an intention. Conversely, a debt collector who receives a request to “stop,” “unsubscribe,” “end,” “quit,” or “cancel” will be considered to have received an opt-out request even though the specific term the consumer used does not conform precisely to the opt-out instructions provided by the debt collector pursuant to § 1006.6(e).

Proposed § 1006.6(e) would have required a debt collector to describe how to opt out clearly and conspicuously, and proposed comment 6(e)-1 would have clarified, among other things, that an email would comply with the clear and conspicuous requirement by including instructions in a textual format, in a type size no smaller than the other text in the email. Several industry and consumer advocate commenters requested that the Bureau elaborate on the clear and conspicuous requirement, including by specifying a minimum type size for instructions contained in emails and clarifying whether a font comparison to the rest of an email should exclude graphics, logos, or other non-substantive content within the message. Several industry commenters also urged the Bureau to provide model instructions that would satisfy the clear and conspicuous requirement.

Final § 1006.6(e) retains the clear and conspicuous requirement. The Bureau also is adopting commentary that refers to comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)-1 for guidance on the meaning of clear and conspicuous and provides examples illustrating how to comply with the rule when sending a text message or email. The Bureau declines, however, to specify precisely where in an electronic communication the instructions required by § 1006.6(e) must be placed or how large the type size must be. Different debt collectors may design their electronic communications in different ways, and the Bureau does not believe it is necessary or warranted to specify such details, as long as the disclosure satisfies the clear and conspicuous standard.

An industry commenter asked the Bureau to clarify whether a debt collector who receives an opt-out request under § 1006.6(e) may send the consumer a single reply to acknowledge the request and advise the consumer that the request applies only to the specific communication medium used by the debt collector and the specific debt being collected. The same commenter also asked the Bureau to provide model language. As noted above, and as comment 14(h)(1)-3.ii illustrates, a consumer's request to opt out under § 1006.6(e) applies to any of the consumer's debts being collected by the debt collector—not just the specific debt being collected. Further, although § 1006.14(h)(2)(i) permits a debt collector to send an electronic confirmation of a consumer's request to opt out provided that the confirmation contains no information other than a statement confirming the person's request and that the debt collector will honor it, the Bureau does not believe it is necessary or warranted to provide model language given the brevity of the communication.

A group of consumer advocate commenters observed that, although proposed § 1006.6(e) would have required a debt collector to describe how to opt out of electronic communications directed to a particular address or telephone number, it would not have explicitly required the debt collector to honor such a request; instead, the requirement to honor an opt-out request would have appeared in proposed § 1006.14(h). The final rule retains the same structure, with the requirement to disclose an opt-out method appearing in § 1006.6(e) and the requirement to honor an opt-out request appearing in § 1006.14(h)(1). Section 1006.14(h)(1) broadly prohibits debt collectors from communicating or attempting to communicate with a person through a medium of communication if the person has requested that the debt collector not use that medium to communicate with the person, and comment 14(h)(1)-3.ii illustrates that such a request includes an opt-out request made pursuant to the § 1006.6(e) instructions.

Another consumer advocate commenter recommended that the Bureau permit consumers to provide debt collectors with a list of third parties who should not be contacted for any reason, including for location-call purposes. Although nothing in the final rule would prohibit a consumer from offering such a list or a debt collector from requesting or accepting such a list, the commenter's request is outside the scope of this rulemaking.

A local government commenter recommended that the Bureau require debt collectors to disclose to consumers additional information about how to limit debt collection communications. For example, the commenter suggested that the Bureau require debt collectors to disclose that consumers can cease all telephone communications or cease telephone communications to a particular number. As the Bureau noted in the proposal, § 1006.6(e) addresses a group of concerns that are unique to electronic communications and attempts to communicate. With respect to telephone calls in particular, consumers likely know how to ask debt Start Printed Page 76797collectors to stop placing unwanted telephone calls; § 1006.14(h)(1) would require debt collectors to honor such requests; and the rebuttable presumptions established by § 1006.14(b)(2) would address the frequency of such calls. For these reasons, the Bureau declines the commenter's suggestion to require debt collectors to provide more detailed information about how consumers may limit telephone communications.

An industry commenter asked the Bureau to create an exception to § 1006.6(e) for electronic communications sent to an email address provided by the consumer to a court pursuant to a State's e-filing rules, arguing that there may be a potential conflict with some State court e-filing rules. The Bureau declines the commenter's request. As discussed above, § 1006.6(e) requires a debt collector to disclose an opt-out method, whereas § 1006.14(h)(1) requires a debt collector to honor an opt-out request. The Bureau believes that the situation raised by the commenter is addressed by final § 1006.14(h)(2)(iii), which provides that, notwithstanding the prohibition in § 1006.14(h)(1), a debt collector may, if required by applicable law, communicate or attempt to communicate with a person in connection with the collection of any debt using a medium that the person has requested the debt collector not use.[348]

For all of the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(e), which provides that a debt collector who communicates or attempts to communicate with a consumer electronically in connection with the collection of a debt using a specific email address, telephone number for text messages, or other electronic-medium address must include in such communication or attempt to communicate a clear and conspicuous statement describing a reasonable and simple method by which the consumer can opt out of further electronic communications or attempts to communicate by the debt collector to that address or telephone number. Final § 1006.6(e) also provides that the debt collector may not require, directly or indirectly, that the consumer, in order to opt out, pay any fee to the debt collector or provide any information other than the consumer's opt-out preferences and the email address, telephone number for text messages, or other electronic-medium address subject to the opt-out request. In addition, the Bureau is adopting comment 6(e)-1, which refers to comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)-1 for guidance on the meaning of clear and conspicuous and to comment 6(d)(4)(ii)(C)(4)-1 for guidance on the meaning of reasonable and simple, and provides examples illustrating the rule.

The Bureau is finalizing § 1006.6(e) as an interpretation of FDCPA sections 806 and 808, pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors. FDCPA section 806 prohibits conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt. Because the marginal cost of transmitting electronic communications to consumers is low, particularly when compared to mail communications, debt collectors have less economic incentive to limit the number of such communications. As multiple consumer advocate commenters confirmed, a reasonable and simple mechanism to opt out allows some consumers to protect themselves from emails and text messages they believe are harassing, oppressive, or abusive. Section 1006.6(e) provides consumers with such a mechanism.

FDCPA section 808 prohibits the use of unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt. It is unfair or unconscionable under the FDCPA for a debt collector to send a consumer an electronic communication, such as an email or text message, without providing a reasonable and simple method to opt out. Because the marginal cost of transmitting electronic communications to consumers is low, particularly when compared to mail communications, debt collectors have less economic incentive to limit the number of such communications. Moreover, as multiple consumer advocate commenters confirmed, for a consumer who does not maintain an unlimited data plan, emails and text messages can lead to charges the consumer does not want to incur. In the absence of a reasonable and simple opt-out method, a consumer who wants to unsubscribe from electronic communications may incur time and cost doing so. On balance, in the Bureau's view, these costs to consumers do not outweigh the benefits to debt collectors of omitting opt-out instructions from electronic communications.

The Bureau also is finalizing § 1006.6(e) pursuant to its authority under section 1032(a) of the Dodd-Frank Act to prescribe rules to ensure that the features of any consumer financial product or service are fully, accurately, and effectively disclosed to consumers in a manner that permits consumers to understand the costs, benefits, and risks associated with the product or service, in light of the facts and circumstances. A consumer's ability to opt out of electronic communications from a debt collector is a feature of debt collection, and the opt-out instructions required by proposed § 1006.6(e) disclose that feature to consumers.

Section 1006.10 Acquisition of Location Information

FDCPA section 804 imposes certain requirements and limitations on a debt collector who communicates with any person other than the consumer for the purpose of acquiring location information about the consumer.[349] FDCPA section 803(7) defines the term location information.[350] The Bureau proposed § 1006.10 to implement FDCPA sections 803(7) and 804.[351] Proposed § 1006.10 generally mirrored the statute, with minor wording and organizational changes for clarity. In addition, proposed § 1006.10(c) would have clarified that proposed § 1006.14(b)'s limits on telephone calls also apply to location calls, and proposed comments 10(a)-1 and 10(b)(2)-1 would have clarified how § 1006.10 applies in the decedent debt context.

The Bureau received two overarching comments regarding proposed § 1006.10. First, several consumer advocates recommended prohibiting any communications with third parties, including for location purposes. These commenters argued that such communications risk violating the privacy of consumers, subjecting the third parties to harassment, and giving domestic abusers the opportunity to learn details of a consumer's financial situation or to manipulate the debt collector into revealing other private information about the consumer. The Bureau declines to adopt such a prohibition because FDCPA section 804 expressly allows debt collectors to contact third parties to seek location information and, as discussed below, includes restrictions on the form, content, and frequency of location communications that are specifically designed to protect consumers' privacy and third parties from harassment.

FDCPA section 805(c) provides that, subject to certain exceptions, if a consumer notifies a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay a debt or that the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease further Start Printed Page 76798communication with the consumer, the debt collector shall cease further communication with the consumer with respect to such debt.[352] A group of State Attorneys General recommended giving third parties (i.e., parties who are not consumers under either FDCPA section 803(3) or 805(d)) the right to cease communications from debt collectors. The Bureau declines to include such a provision—which does not appear in the FDCPA and which the Bureau did not propose—in this final rule. However, several other provisions in the statute or the final rule (or both) apply to location communications and may provide third parties similar protection. For example, under the final rule, a third party's request to never be contacted again is a factor that may rebut a debt collector's presumption of compliance with § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5) when telephone call volume is at or below the levels specified in § 1006.14(b)(2)(i).[353] Moreover, as discussed below, FDCPA section 804(3) and final § 1006.10(c) prohibit debt collectors from communicating more than once with a third party to seek location information unless requested to do so by such person, or unless the debt collector reasonably believes that the earlier response of such person is erroneous or incomplete and that such person now has correct or complete location information. For these reasons, and for the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.10 largely as proposed, with minor changes for clarity. The Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.10 pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors and to interpret FDCPA section 804.

10(a) Definition

Consistent with the statute, the Bureau proposed § 1006.10(a) to provide that location information means a consumer's place of abode and telephone number at such place or the consumer's place of employment. The Bureau received several comments on this proposed definition. Several industry commenters asked the Bureau to clarify that location information includes a consumer's mobile telephone number and email address. Other commenters noted that proposed § 1006.10(a) mirrored the FDCPA section 803(7)'s disjunctive definition of location information, i.e., the consumer's place of abode and telephone number at such place, “or” the consumer's place of employment. An industry commenter asked whether debt collectors could continue seeking one element of location information if they already had the other, while a consumer advocate asked the Bureau to clarify that possessing one element prohibits a debt collector from further location communications. Finally, consumer advocates recommended that the Bureau prohibit a debt collector from calling third parties under the pretense of gaining information that the debt collector already possesses.

The Bureau declines to finalize the types of clarifications the commenters requested. The Bureau believes the definition of “location information” currently does not present a serious source of harm to consumers or burden to debt collectors. For example, the Bureau is unaware of significant recent litigation or enforcement actions concerning the definition of location information. While the Bureau understands that there may be some uncertainty regarding mobile telephone numbers and email addresses, the Bureau notes that nothing in the final rule prohibits a debt collector who is engaged in a permissible location communication from requesting other pieces of contact information for the consumer. Finally, the Bureau does not believe that it is necessary or warranted to provide additional interpretation regarding the pretext for location communications. The Bureau notes that § 1006.10(b) specifies that communications under this section must be “for the purpose of acquiring location information.” The Bureau will monitor this definitional issue for any potential consumer harm or compliance concerns and revisit at a later time if needed.

10(b) Form and Content of Location Communications

The Bureau proposed § 1006.10(b) to implement the paragraphs of FDCPA section 804 that address the form and content of location communications.[354] Proposed § 1006.10(b) generally mirrored the statute, and the Bureau received only a few comments addressing it. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.10(b) as proposed.

Two industry commenters expressed dissatisfaction with FDCPA section 804(1), proposed to be implemented as § 1006.10(b)(1), which requires that, during location communications, debt collectors state, among other things, “that [they are] confirming or correcting location information” for the consumer. The commenters believed that such language reveals that the consumer owes a debt. A group of State Attorneys General asked the Bureau to adopt a broad interpretation of FDCPA section 804(5) (proposed to be implemented as § 1006.10(b)(4)). FDCPA section 804(5) restricts debt collectors from using any language or symbol in mailed location communications that indicates the debt collector is in the debt collection business. The commenter requested that the Bureau interpret this restriction as applying to location communications sent by media in addition to mail.

The Bureau has considered these comments but declines to interpret the statutory requirement related to these provisions. The Bureau did not propose changes to these statutory provisions and concludes that additional information, including through public comment, would be advisable before adopting any such interpretations.

One industry commenter asked for clarity on proposed § 1006.10(b)(5), which would have implemented FDCPA section 804(6), and provided, in relevant part that, if a debt collector knows that a consumer is represented by an attorney, the debt collector must not communicate with any person other than the attorney, unless the attorney fails to respond “within a reasonable period of time.” The commenter asked the Bureau to clarify the meaning of a “reasonable period of time.” The Bureau believes that reasonableness generally depends upon the facts and circumstances surrounding a debt collector's communications with a consumer's attorney. Accordingly, the Bureau declines to identify a blanket period of time after which all communications with persons other than a consumer's attorney are permissible in all cases.

Finally, in its Policy Statement on Decedent Debt, the FTC stated that it would refrain from taking enforcement action under FDCPA section 804(2) against debt collectors who state that they are seeking to locate a person “with the authority to pay any outstanding bills of the decedent out of the decedent's estate.” [355] The Bureau requested comment on the language debt collectors may use to locate a person handling the decedent's affairs in the FTC's Policy Statement (“with the authority to pay any outstanding bills of the decedent out of the decedent's estate”) compared to proposed comment Start Printed Page 7679910(b)(2)-1 (“authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate”). An industry commenter supported the Bureau's language, while a trade group commenter and a group of consumer advocates stated that they had no concerns with the proposal. Several commenters, however, preferred that debt collectors use other language to locate the person authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate. Most of these commenters preferred the FTC's language for several reasons, including that some individuals might be authorized to act on behalf of the estate only in limited ways that do not involve paying the deceased consumer's debts; that the privacy interests the FDCPA aimed to protect were lower in the decedent debt context; and that referring to the authority to act on behalf of the estate was likely to prompt clarifying questions that might reveal that the consumer owes a debt. One industry commenter stated that it asked for the person “handling the financial affairs” of the deceased consumer and that the Bureau should adopt this language. A trade group commenter asked the Bureau to allow debt collectors to use the FTC's language in response to follow-up questions during a location communication, while another trade group commenter suggested that the rule allow both the FTC's and the Bureau's language.

The Bureau understands commenters' policy arguments but remains concerned about the phrase “outstanding bills” from the FTC's Policy Statement. FDCPA section 803(5) defines debt broadly to include “any obligation or alleged obligation of a consumer to pay money arising out of a transaction . . . primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.” [356] Because the definition is not limited to delinquent or defaulted obligations, even references to outstanding bills may reveal that the consumer owes a debt under the FDCPA. Accordingly, the Bureau is finalizing comment 10(b)(2)-1, in relevant part, as proposed. To increase flexibility, final comment 10(b)(2)-1 also permits debt collectors to identify the person authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate as the person handling the financial affairs of the deceased consumer because the Bureau notes that this language is also unlikely to reveal the existence of a debt.

Two commenters made additional suggestions. A trade group commenter requested that the Bureau exempt location communications from the definition of communication in the decedent debt context. And consumer advocates asked the Bureau to require debt collectors to check whether public records listed an executor or administrator, and if so, to prohibit communications with anyone other than that individual. The Bureau declines to interpret communications so as not to include any location communications in the decedent debt context. The Bureau also declines to adopt a requirement to check public records. The Bureau supports the FTC's encouragement for debt collectors to make good-faith efforts to search public records before communicating with a deceased consumer's estate.[357] Nevertheless, the Bureau concludes that final § 1006.10's provisions regulating location communications, combined with final § 1006.6(a)'s restrictions on the individuals with whom debt collectors may communicate, provides sufficient restrictions on communications consistent with the statutory provisions, without the need for definitional changes or new record-checking requirements.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.10 and comments 10(a)-1 and 10(b)(2)-1 largely as proposed, with minor changes for clarity.

Comment 10(a)-1 provides that, if a consumer obligated or allegedly obligated to pay any debt is deceased, location information includes the information described in § 1006.10(a) for a person who is authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate, as described in § 1006.6(a)(4) and its associated commentary. Comment 10(b)(2)-1 provides that, if the consumer obligated or allegedly obligated to pay the debt is deceased, and the debt collector is attempting to locate the person who is authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate, the debt collector does not violate § 1006.10(b)(2) by stating that the debt collector is seeking to identify and locate the person who is authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate. The debt collector may also state that the debt collector is seeking to identify and locate the person handling the financial affairs of the deceased consumer.

10(c) Frequency of Location Communications

Proposed § 1006.10(c) would have implemented FDCPA section 804(3), which provides that a debt collector must not communicate with a person for the purpose of obtaining location information more than once, unless the debt collector reasonably believes that the person's earlier response was erroneous or incomplete and that the person now has correct or complete information. Proposed § 1006.10(c) also specified that debt collectors engaging in location communications by telephone must comply with the telephone frequency limits in § 1006.14(b).

A government commenter and several consumers and consumer advocates objected to the proposal to apply the same frequency limits to location calls as to telephone calls generally (i.e., up to seven unanswered telephone calls to a person during a seven-day period).[358] These commenters stated that the proposed frequency limits were too high for any person, but especially for third parties receiving location calls, who may be more likely to find such calls harassing because they do not owe the debt. Consumer advocates also suggested that third parties were unlikely to answer location telephone calls and therefore would not receive the benefit of proposed § 1006.10(c)'s restriction on debt collectors communicating more than once with third parties for location information purposes. Some of these commenters proposed various alternative frequency limits, such as one attempt per third party per week.

The Bureau declines to revise § 1006.10(c) to set forth unique telephone calling frequencies for third parties. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14, the Bureau finds that the frequency standards described in that section are appropriate for third parties as well as consumers. Moreover, as discussed above, debt collectors' telephone calls to third parties are cabined by the general statutory prohibition, implemented in § 1006.6(d), against communicating with third parties unless they have the purpose of obtaining location information. The Bureau acknowledges that, as suggested by some consumer advocates, some third parties could receive excess telephone calls. The Bureau is not aware, however, that debt collectors are routinely or successfully claiming in litigation or enforcement Start Printed Page 76800actions that such telephone calls are properly placed for the purpose of acquiring location information and consistent with the prohibition against communicating more than once with a third party to seek location information. Finally, location communications are subject to § 1006.14's general prohibition on harassing, oppressive, or abusive conduct.

Section 1006.14 Harassing, Oppressive, or Abusive Conduct

FDCPA section 806 [359] prohibits a debt collector from engaging in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt. It lists six non-exhaustive examples of such prohibited conduct. The Bureau proposed § 1006.14 to implement and interpret FDCPA section 806.[360] Except with respect to § 1006.14(b) and (h), proposed § 1006.14 generally restated the statute, with only minor wording and organizational changes for clarity.

The following section-by-section analyses summarize and address comments related to proposed § 1006.14(a), (b), and (h). Apart from one comment related to proposed § 1006.14(g) that does not require any changes to regulation text or commentary,[361] the Bureau did not receive feedback specifically addressing proposed § 1006.14(c) through (g) and therefore is finalizing these paragraphs as proposed. The Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14 pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors, as well as pursuant to its authority to implement and interpret FDCPA section 806.

The Bureau notes that it received many comments from individual and consumer advocate commenters describing harassing conduct that they or their clients have experienced by debt collectors. For example, some commenters stated that they are afraid to answer telephone calls because debt collectors have called them repeatedly and used profane language. Other commenters described feeling shame when debt collectors disclosed information to neighbors and friends about debts they allegedly owed. Commenters described debt collectors threatening them with criminal prosecution or bodily harm if they did not pay an alleged debt immediately. Some commenters explained that these types of behaviors by debt collectors cause them stress that manifests into physical symptoms such as increased blood pressure, heavy breathing, pain, and loss of sleep. The Bureau emphasizes that the conduct described by commenters above is prohibited by FDCPA section 806 and final § 1006.14, even if specific examples of such conduct are not discussed in the regulation text or commentary.

14(a) In General

As noted, FDCPA section 806 generally prohibits a debt collector from engaging in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt, and FDCPA section 806(1) through (6) lists six non-exhaustive examples of such prohibited conduct. Proposed § 1006.14(a) would have largely restated FDCPA section 806.[362] For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14(a) generally as proposed but is adopting new comments 14(a)-1 and -2 in response to feedback requesting clarity about its scope.

The Bureau received a number of comments requesting clarification about the scope of FDCPA section 806 as it would have been implemented in proposed § 1006.14(a). For example, a group of consumer advocates asked that the Bureau include in the rule text or commentary the statement the Bureau made in the preamble to the proposal that § 1006.14(a) applies to communication media other than telephone calls. The same group of consumer advocates asked the Bureau to clarify that § 1006.14(a) applies based on the cumulative effect of a debt collector's conduct across multiple communication media. An industry commenter asked the Bureau to confirm the opposite—i.e., that § 1006.14(a) applies separately to each communication method used by the debt collector.

In light of these comments, the Bureau is adopting two comments to clarify that the general prohibition on harassing conduct in FDCPA section 806, as implemented in § 1006.14(a), applies whether debt collectors place telephone calls or use other communication media. In addition, the comments clarify that all communication media are analyzed individually as well as cumulatively.[363]

Comment 14(a)-1 clarifies that § 1006.14(a), which implements FDCPA section 806, sets forth a general standard that prohibits a debt collector from engaging in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt. The comment clarifies, further, that the general prohibition covers the specific conduct described in § 1006.14(b) through (h), as well as any conduct by the debt collector that is not specifically prohibited by § 1006.14(b) through (h) but that the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt. The comment explains that the conduct can occur regardless of the communication media the debt collector uses, including in-person interactions, telephone calls, audio recordings, paper documents, mail, email, text messages, social media, or other electronic media, even if not specifically addressed by § 1006.14(b) through (h).

Comment 14(a)-1 also includes an example involving a scenario in which, in connection with the collection of a debt: A debt collector sends a consumer numerous, unsolicited text messages per day for several consecutive days; the consumer does not respond; the debt collector does not communicate or attempt to communicate with the consumer using any other communication medium; and that, by sending the text messages, the debt collector has not violated § 1006.14(b) through (h). The comment clarifies that even though the debt collector has not violated any specific prohibition under § 1006.14(b) through (h), it is likely that the natural consequence of the debt collector's text messages is to harass, Start Printed Page 76801oppress, or abuse the person receiving them and that when such natural consequence occurs, the debt collector has violated § 1006.14(a) and FDCPA section 806.

Comment 14(a)-2 addresses cumulative communications by the debt collector, and clarifies that, depending on the facts and circumstances, conduct that on its own would violate neither the general prohibition in § 1006.14(a), nor any specific prohibition in § 1006.14(b) through (h), nonetheless may violate § 1006.14(a) when such conduct is evaluated cumulatively with other conduct. The comment further clarifies that such conduct can occur through any communication medium the debt collector uses, including in-person interactions, telephone calls, audio recordings, paper documents, mail, email, text messages, social media, or other electronic media. The comment then provides an example in which the debt collector places seven unanswered telephone calls within seven consecutive days to a consumer in connection with the collection of a debt and, during the same time period, sends multiple additional unsolicited emails about the debt to the consumer, to which the consumer does not respond. The comment notes that it is likely that the natural consequence of the cumulative effect of the debt collector's telephone calls and emails is to harass, oppress, or abuse the person receiving them; when such natural consequence occurs, the debt collector has violated § 1006.14(a) and FDCPA section 806.

The Bureau notes that, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b) setting forth the Bureau's final rule regarding telephone call frequencies, the Bureau received thousands of comments from consumers, consumer advocates, a local government, a group of State Attorneys General, members of Congress, and other commenters expressing concern that the proposal—which included numeric limits for debt collection telephone calls but did not include numeric limits for debt collection contacts through other communication media—would have allowed debt collectors to send excessive or unlimited text messages and emails, or otherwise inundate consumers with these electronic communications. Some commenters expressed concern, for example, that debt collectors would program their systems to send multiple emails per second and cause consumers' data and text messaging plans to be maxed out, preventing consumers from using their devices.

The Bureau understands that few debt collectors currently send electronic communications, and the Bureau is not aware of these debt collectors sending excessive electronic communications. Even if, as a result of this final rule, debt collectors choose to send electronic communications more frequently than they currently do, the Bureau does not believe that sending excessive electronic communications, including by programming systems to send multiple emails per second, generally would be a profitable strategy for debt collectors. Additionally, this type of conduct would undoubtedly harm consumers. It would not have been permitted by the proposal and is not permitted by the final rule. FDCPA section 806, as implemented by § 1006.14(a), covers, among other things, the debt collector's use of any communication medium in connection with the collection of a debt. Consequently, a debt collector would violate the FDCPA and Regulation F by sending text messages or emails, making social media posts, or the like, if the natural consequence of that conduct is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt. New final comments 14(a)-1 and -2 further clarify this point.

Finally, the Bureau received a request to clarify that § 1006.14(a) applies even if a consumer does not opt out of receiving electronic debt collection communications or communication attempts pursuant to the instructions in § 1006.6(e) or exercise the right to request that the debt collector stop using a particular communication medium under § 1006.14(h). The Bureau affirms that it does. Sections 1006.6(e) [364] and 1006.14(h) [365] provide consumers with tools to limit or stop debt collectors from communicating or attempting to communicate with them.[366] Regardless of whether a consumer uses such tools, the final rule prohibits a debt collector from engaging in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt, as provided for in FDCPA section 806 and § 1006.14(a). Because neither the text of § 1006.14(a) nor the text of § 1006.6(e) or § 1006.14(h) states or implies that a consumer would have to opt out of receiving electronic communications or request the debt collector stop using a particular communication medium to trigger § 1006.14(a)'s general prohibition against harassing, oppressive, or abusive conduct, the Bureau concludes that it is not necessary or warranted to add new commentary to specify this fact.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14(a) largely as proposed, but with a minor grammatical revision to more closely align with the statute. Final § 1006.14(a) thus provides that a debt collector must not engage in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt, including, but not limited to, the conduct described in § 1006.14(b) through (h). In addition, as discussed, the Bureau is finalizing new comments 14(a)-1 and -2 to clarify that § 1006.14(a) applies, among other things, to a debt collector's conduct in using any medium of communication in connection with the collection of a debt.

14(b) Repeated or Continuous Telephone Calls or Telephone Conversations

FDCPA section 806(5) [367] describes one example of conduct prohibited by section 806: Causing a telephone to ring or engaging any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number. Proposed § 1006.14(b) would have implemented and interpreted FDCPA section 806(5)—and, by extension, the general prohibition on harassing conduct in FDCPA section 806.[368] Specifically, proposed § 1006.14(b)(1) set forth the prohibition on placing telephone calls or engaging any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass; § 1006.14(b)(2) described bright-line frequency limits for telephone calls and telephone conversations during a seven-day period; and proposed § 1006.14(b)(3) through (5) described telephone calls excluded from the frequency limits, the Start Printed Page 76802effect of complying with the frequency limits, and a definition, respectively.

As discussed in detail in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.14(b)(1) through (4), the Bureau is finalizing its proposal regarding telephone call frequencies with revisions in light of feedback. Among other things, rather than finalizing a bright-line rule for permissible and prohibited telephone call frequency, the Bureau is finalizing telephone call frequencies in the form of a rebuttable presumption that a debt collector has either complied with or violated the prohibition in § 1006.14(b)(1) regarding repeated or continuous telephone calls and telephone conversations.

In this section-by-section analysis, the Bureau addresses feedback regarding proposed comment 14(b)(1)-1, which, for the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing, with revisions, as comment 14(b)-1. The Bureau also addresses feedback regarding proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(ii) and (4), which the Bureau is not finalizing as part of this rule. Public comments regarding all other aspects of proposed § 1006.14(b) are addressed in turn in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.14(b)(1) through (4).

Final Comment 14(b)-1

As noted, proposed § 1006.14(b)(1) contained the provision implementing FDCPA section 806(5). Specifically, as proposed, § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) provided that, in connection with the collection of a debt, a debt collector must not place telephone calls or engage any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number.[369] As discussed further in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.14(b)(1), proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) thus largely restated FDCPA section 806(5), except that, whereas the statute prohibits “[c]ausing a telephone to ring,” proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) would have applied when a debt collector “place[s] telephone calls.” This interpretation meant that the proposed prohibition would have applied even if a debt collector's telephone call did not cause a traditional ring, as long as the telephone call connected to the dialed number. Proposed comment 14(b)(1)-1 would have clarified that, for purposes of the proposed telephone call frequency limits, “placing a telephone call” includes conveying a ringless voicemail (or “voicemail drop”) but does not include sending an electronic message (e.g., a text message or an email) to a mobile telephone.

The Bureau received comments questioning whether the phrase “placing a telephone call” in proposed commentary to § 1006.14(b)(1) also applied to the bright-line telephone call frequency limits in proposed § 1006.14(b)(2), which used similar language. The Bureau intended proposed comment 14(b)(1)-1 to apply to the concept of placing a telephone call everywhere that concept is used in § 1006.14(b). Therefore, the Bureau is renumbering proposed comment 14(b)(1)-1 as comment 14(b)-1 and is revising it to clarify that the interpretation applies throughout § 1006.14(b).

Ringless voicemails. The Bureau received a number of comments regarding its proposal in comment 14(b)(1)-1 to interpret the phrase “placing a telephone call” to apply to ringless voicemails. Some industry commenters argued that the consumer experience with ringless voicemails is fundamentally different—and better—than with telephone calls and that ringless voicemails therefore should not be subject to telephone call frequency limits. They explained that a ringless voicemail is more like an email or text message than a telephone call. As described by one commenter, with a ringless voicemail, a consumer only receives a new voicemail according to the consumer's prescribed preferences, and, after receiving a new voicemail, the consumer can then choose if, when, and how the actual voicemail message content is presented. The commenter explained that, in most ringless voicemail applications, a consumer can swipe away any voicemail the consumer does not wish to read, listen to, or otherwise engage with, just like a consumer can do with an email or text message. This commenter also noted compliance challenges with tracking the cumulative number of telephone calls and ringless voicemails, given that the two types of calls are placed through independent systems run by different vendors. The commenter said that, if debt collectors have to track both telephone calls and ringless voicemails, they will opt to use one over the other instead of dealing with the complexities of cross channel frequency limit tracking. However, other industry commenters, Federal government agency staff, local government commenters, a group of consumer advocate commenters, and other commenters supported the proposal to clarify that “placing a telephone call” includes conveying a ringless voicemail.

As noted above, section 806(5) of the FDCPA prohibits a debt collector from “causing a telephone to ring or engaging any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number.” [370] The focus on telephone calls suggests that the provision was meant to apply to communications that present the opportunity for the parties to engage in a live telephone conversation or that result in an audio message. Ringless voicemails are audio messages that allow debt collectors to bypass a person's opportunity to answer the telephone by connecting directly to the person's voicemail. Even telephone calls that result in an audio message without an audible ring, if made repeatedly and continuously, nonetheless may be intended to harass or may have the natural consequence of harassing a person in ways that the FDCPA prohibits, particularly if, for example, the messages contain similar content and do not provide new information to the person receiving the messages. The Bureau recognizes that its interpretation of FDCPA section 806(5) may result in compliance challenges for a small number of debt collectors who place telephone calls and ringless voicemails using different systems and different vendors. However, the Bureau expects that those debt collectors will be able to overcome such challenges by developing new tracking systems; modifying their business models to use either telephone calls or ringless voicemails but not both; or using both in volumes that, even if combined, would be unlikely to create a violation.

Communication media other than telephone calls. The Bureau received a large number of comments regarding its proposal in comment 14(b)(1)-1 to interpret the phrase “placing a telephone call” not to include sending an electronic message (e.g., a text message or an email) to a mobile telephone, as well as its decision to not otherwise propose specific frequency limits for communication media other than telephone calls.

Consumer, consumer advocate, State and local government, and State Attorneys General commenters stated that the Bureau should impose frequency limits on electronic communication media.[371] State Attorneys General commenters described the prohibition in proposed § 1006.14(a)—which would have Start Printed Page 76803covered, and as finalized does cover, electronic communications—as insufficient to protect consumers from excessive electronic communications, noting that FDCPA section 806 has been difficult to apply in any context and has resulted in a significant amount of litigation and conflicting court opinions. One Federal government commenter reasoned that “placing a telephone call” should include sending a text message because the FCC has interpreted the phrase “mak[ing] any call” in the TCPA as encompassing the sending of text messages.[372]

Commenters criticized the Bureau's rationale for not proposing to impose numeric limits on electronic communications. In the proposal, the Bureau grounded its justification in the specific language of FDCPA section 806(5), which the Bureau believed indicated Congress's intention to apply the provision to communications that present the opportunity for the parties to engage in a live telephone conversation or that result in an audio message. The Bureau also explained that it was not aware of debt collectors sending electronic messages to consumers repeatedly or continuously with intent to harass them or to cause substantial injury. Commenters asserted that the Bureau's reasoning for proposing telephone call frequency limits is equally applicable to electronic communication media, arguing that electronic communications are not less intrusive than telephone calls because consumers often receive notifications when they get text messages or emails that interrupt what they are doing and require them to assess whether such communications need immediate attention. Some commenters also criticized the Bureau's justification that there is little, if any, evidence that electronic communications harm consumers, arguing that the only reason evidence is lacking is because such communication media are not specifically contemplated under current law and thus not yet widely used by industry.

A group of State Attorneys General and State and local government commenters, among others, predicted that, if the Bureau did not impose numeric limits on electronic debt collection communications or communication attempts, debt collectors would rely on them heavily; some of these commenters explained that electronic communications are virtually costless.[373] Some commenters also observed that, absent a numeric limit on electronic communications, consumers with limited or pay-per-service plans—who tend to be lower-income and more likely to be subject to debt collection—will incur costs when debt collectors send text messages and emails.[374]

Consumer advocates recommended that, if the Bureau does not impose numeric frequency limits on electronic communications, the Bureau should at least require debt collectors to report on their use of emails, text messages, and direct messages. Consumer advocates also encouraged the Bureau to consider specific limits in the future if debt collectors abuse these communication media.

The Bureau received a large number of comments from the credit and collections industry expressing general support for the Bureau's proposal not to apply numeric frequency limits to communication media other than telephone calls.[375] Many industry commenters distinguished electronic communications from telephone calls, arguing that, unlike telephone calls, electronic communication media do not harass consumers because they are passive communications that consumers can engage with at their convenience or can opt out of receiving entirely.[376] Industry commenters argued that the proposed opt-out provision in § 1006.6(e) and the general prohibition against conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt in proposed § 1006.14(a), along with FDCPA section 806, would impose sufficient limits on a debt collector's use of electronic communications.

Industry commenters asserted that a numeric frequency limit on electronic communication media would harm consumers.[377] Many of these industry commenters explained that consumers prefer to communicate through electronic media because they can interact with and respond to an electronic message when it is most convenient. If the Bureau were to impose numeric frequency limits on electronic communications, it could discourage debt collectors from utilizing such media to communicate with consumers. Other industry commenters explained that the ability to communicate by email and text message will offset the negative impacts of the proposed telephone call frequency limits, such as the inability to establish contact with consumers.[378] Some industry commenters cautioned that, if communications are restricted too much, debt collectors will instead file lawsuits against consumers to collect the debts.

The Bureau declines to impose numeric limitations on a debt collector's use of electronic communication media or of a combination of telephone calls and electronic communication media. Because debt collectors do not presently engage in widespread use of electronic communications, the Bureau concludes that it does not have sufficient information to warrant applying numeric limitations to electronic communications. However, the Bureau reiterates that FDCPA section 806 and § 1006.14(a) apply to debt collectors' conduct in using such media,[379] and the final rule contains several other provisions designed to curb harassment Start Printed Page 76804from electronic communications and empower consumers to restrict debt collection communications.[380] The Bureau also intends to actively monitor the market and to gather information on these electronic communications in general so that it may determine in the future whether numeric limitations on electronic communications are necessary and warranted and, if so, what specific numeric limitations the Bureau should consider.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing proposed comment 14(b)(1)-1 as final comment 14(b)-1 with minor revisions to provide that “placing a telephone call” for purposes of § 1006.14(b) includes conveying a ringless voicemail but does not include sending an electronic message (e.g., a text message or an email) that may be received on a mobile telephone.[381]

Proposed Provisions Not Finalized

Identification and prevention of Dodd-Frank Act unfair act or practice. As noted above, proposed § 1006.14(b)(1) set forth the prohibition regarding repeated or continuous telephone calls and telephone conversations, with proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) largely restating the text of the prohibition in FDCPA section 806(5). The Bureau proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(ii), in turn, to identify, for FDCPA debt collectors who were also covered by the Dodd-Frank Act, the conduct articulated in FDCPA section 806(5) as an unfair act or practice under section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act.[382] As proposed, § 1006.14(b)(1)(ii) provided that, to prevent the unfair act or practice, a debt collector must not exceed the bright-line telephone call frequency limits that were set forth in proposed § 1006.14(b)(2).[383]

As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.1(c), while some commenters supported the Bureau's proposed use of its Dodd-Frank Act section 1031 authority, a number of industry commenters expressed concern that the Bureau's proposed use of its Dodd-Frank Act section 1031 authority could—despite the stated limits of the proposal as only applying to FDCPA debt collectors—lead, if finalized, to provisions that relied on such authority, including the prohibitions on unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices under section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act, being applied to first-party debt collectors. These commenters urged the Bureau to adopt proposed § 1006.14(b)(1) using only its FDCPA authority. The Bureau understands commenters' concerns that conduct the Bureau deemed to be prohibited by the FDCPA and the Dodd-Frank Act when undertaken by FDCPA debt collectors could be construed also to be prohibited when undertaken by other entities collecting debts, even if they are not FDCPA debt collectors. In response to commenters' concerns, the Bureau notes, as discussed elsewhere in this Notice,[384] that the FDCPA recognizes the special sensitivity of communications by FDCPA debt collectors relative to communications by creditors, and, therefore, the FDCPA provides protections for consumers receiving such communications from debt collectors but not creditors.

Moreover, as noted above, and as is discussed in detail below, the Bureau has determined to finalize a rebuttable-presumption approach in § 1006.14(b)(2), rather than a bright-line rule, regarding telephone call frequencies. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(2), whether the presumption of compliance or of a violation, as applicable, may be rebutted depends upon the relevant facts and circumstances. Furthermore, the final rule specifies non-exhaustive factors that, considered together with whether the frequency of a debt collector's telephone calls exceeded or was within the rule's specified frequencies, are relevant to determining whether a debt collector's conduct violated the prohibition in FDCPA section 806(5) and final § 1006.14(b)(1), including whether the debt collector had the intent to annoy, abuse, or harass the person at the called number. In light of this change, the Bureau has determined that it is not necessary to also identify the conduct described in FDCPA section 806(5) or § 1006.14(b) as an unfair, deceptive, or abusive act or practice under section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act or to find that the telephone call frequencies will prevent such an unfair act or practice. Accordingly, the Bureau is not finalizing proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(ii) and is renumbering the FDCPA standard in proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) as final § 1006.14(b)(1).

Effect of complying with telephone call frequencies. Proposed § 1006.14(b)(4) [385] would have clarified that a debt collector who did not exceed the telephone call frequency limits described in proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) complied with § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5) and did not, based on the frequency of its telephone calls, violate § 1006.14(a), FDCPA section 806, or sections 1031 or 1036(a)(1)(B) of the Dodd-Frank Act.[386] Because the Bureau is not finalizing the proposed bright-line frequency limits for telephone calls, the Bureau is not finalizing proposed § 1006.14(b)(4) regarding the effects of complying with those limits. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(1), however, the Bureau is incorporating similar concepts in newly adopted comments 14(b)(1)-1 and -2 and as part of final § 1006.14(b)(2).

14(b)(1) In General

Proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) would have implemented the statutory prohibition in FDCPA section 806(5) by providing that, in connection with the collection of a debt, a debt collector must not place telephone calls or engage any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number.[387] As discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) renumbered as § 1006.14(b)(1). For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing the text of § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) as proposed but is adopting new comments 14(b)(1)-1 and -2 to clarify the interaction of final § 1006.14(b)(1) and (2).[388]

Start Printed Page 76805

Consistent with FDCPA section 806(5), proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) would have applied to telephone calls placed by a debt collector to any person, not just to the consumer. Thus, as proposed, § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) would have applied to, among other things, telephone calls placed to obtain location information about a consumer as described in § 1006.10. Federal government agency staff supported this approach. One individual commenter expressed concern that a consumer would be negatively affected if a debt collector placed numerous location information calls to the consumer's employer. A group of consumer advocates recommended that the Bureau limit location information calls to third parties to one telephone call attempt per third party per week, while another consumer advocate commenter recommended that location information calls to third parties be prohibited altogether. Some commenters, including individuals and a consumer advocate commenter, incorrectly stated that the proposal would permit “unlimited” telephone calls to third parties.

In response to commenters' concerns, the Bureau notes that FDCPA section 806(5) protects “any person” from such conduct. Because FDCPA section 806(5) does not distinguish between a debt collector's conduct toward third parties and consumers, the Bureau is applying the same telephone call standards to all telephone calls placed by debt collectors in connection with the collection of a debt.[389] Consistent with FDCPA section 804, the final rule places additional limits on telephone calls to third parties for the purpose of acquiring location information.[390] The Bureau also notes that, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(2), a debt collector's presumption of compliance with § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5) may be rebutted, based on the facts and circumstances.

Some industry commenters asked the Bureau to define the term telephone conversation that appears in § 1006.14(b)(1). A group of consumer advocates suggested the term should include any time the consumer answers the debt collector's telephone call, even if the debt is not discussed. The term telephone conversation in final § 1006.14(b)(1) comes directly from FDCPA section 806(5) and has the same meaning as it does in the statute. To be clear, however, the term is not synonymous with a debt collection communication, as defined in FDCPA section 803(2) and implemented in final § 1006.2(d). A debt collection communication occurs if information regarding a debt is conveyed directly or indirectly to any person through any medium. If a debt collector leaves a voicemail for a consumer that includes details about the debt, the debt collector has engaged in a debt collection communication with the consumer but has not had a telephone conversation. Likewise, if a consumer answers a debt collector's telephone call and, before anything else is said, asks the debt collector to call back in 10 minutes, the debt collector has engaged in a telephone conversation with the consumer but may not have had a debt collection communication.

Several industry commenters also raised hypothetical questions asking whether particular types of telephone calls would count as “placed” for purposes of § 1006.14(b)(1) and, in turn, for purposes of the proposed telephone call frequency limits in § 1006.14(b)(2). Elsewhere in § 1006.14(b), the Bureau is adopting new commentary clarifying how to count placed telephone calls. That commentary further clarifies when a debt collector has placed a telephone call or engaged in a telephone conversation for purposes of § 1006.14(b).[391]

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing the text of proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) as final § 1006.14(b)(1). The Bureau is also adding new comments 14(b)(1)-1 and -2 to clarify the effect of complying with § 1006.14(b)(1).[392]

Specifically, comment 14(b)(1)-1 provides that a debt collector who complies with final § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5)'s specific prohibition also complies with final § 1006.14(a) and FDCPA section 806's general prohibition solely with respect to the frequency of its telephone calls. The comment further clarifies that the debt collector nevertheless could violate § 1006.14(a) and FDCPA section 806 if the natural consequence of another aspect of its telephone calls, unrelated to frequency, is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt. Comment 14(b)(1)-2 provides an illustrative example.

14(b)(2) Telephone Call Frequencies; Presumptions of Compliance and of a Violation

FDCPA section 806 [393] prohibits a broad range of debt collection communication practices that harm consumers and others. Section 806(5),[394] in particular, prohibits debt collectors from causing a telephone to ring or engaging a person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass. Proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) would have set forth bright-line frequency limits for debt collection telephone calls.[395] Proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) provided that, subject to exclusions in proposed § 1006.14(b)(3), a debt collector violates the FDCPA section 806(5) prohibition implemented in proposed § 1006.14(b)(1)(i) and the unfair act or practice under section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act the Bureau proposed to identify in § 1006.14(b)(1)(ii) by exceeding the telephone call frequency limits in proposed § 1006.14(b)(2). Specifically, proposed § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) provided that, subject to exclusions, a debt collector must not place a telephone call to a person [396] more than seven times within seven consecutive days in connection with the collection of a particular debt. Proposed § 1006.14(b)(2)(ii) provided that, subject to exclusions, a debt collector must not place a telephone call to a person in connection with the collection of a particular debt within a period of seven consecutive days after having had a telephone conversation with that person in connection with the collection of such debt (with the date of the telephone conversation being the first Start Printed Page 76806day of the seven-consecutive-day period).[397]

The Bureau requested comment on all aspects of proposed § 1006.14(b)(2), including on whether the Bureau should adopt a rebuttable-presumption approach in lieu of the proposed bright lines,[398] and if so, whether the Bureau should retain any of the exclusions described in proposed § 1006.14(b)(3).

The Bureau received thousands of comments from a variety of stakeholders about the proposed telephone call frequency limits, including about the merits of a bright-line rule versus a rebuttable-presumption approach and about the specific proposed limits. Commenters addressed both the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit and the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit. Notably, commenters voiced stronger criticisms of the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit, with most commenters opposing it because in their view it was either too high (i.e., too permissive) or too low (i.e., too restrictive).

In light of feedback, and for the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) to retain the proposed telephone call frequencies but to replace the bright-line rule with an approach under which a debt collector who places telephone calls or engages in telephone conversations: (1) Within those frequencies has a rebuttable presumption of compliance with FDCPA section 806(5) and § 1006.14(b)(1); and (2) in excess of one or both of those frequencies has a rebuttable presumption of a violation of FDCPA section 806(5) and § 1006.14(b)(1).

Comments Regarding Bright-Line Rule

Commenters spanning a wide spectrum of stakeholders—including debt collectors, industry trade groups, consumer advocates, and a group of State Attorneys General—conceptually supported a bright-line rule. A variety of reasons were cited by the different commenters, including that FDCPA section 806(5) is vague, courts have not consistently interpreted the provision, industry needs more clarity and certainty, and a bright-line limit will provide relief to consumers. One consumer advocate commented that a bright-line rule ran counter to the Bureau's observations elsewhere in the proposal about the importance of context in determining whether a particular contact is abusive or harassing, but nonetheless found merit in the Bureau seeking to develop a bright-line rule on the number of permitted telephone calls. The SBA suggested that more exceptions were needed for a bright-line limit to work, particularly for law firms trying to negotiate settlements.

Some industry commenters opposed a bright-line rule conceptually because they asserted that it would depart from the statutory language in FDCPA section 806(5), which contains an express intent requirement. They commented that FDCPA jurisprudence has established that there is no bright-line number of telephone calls to demonstrate whether a debt collector had the intent to harass and that courts have found that placing more than seven telephone call attempts in seven days is not harassing or abusive. These commenters described how case law has established factors to consider when determining whether a debt collector had the requisite intent, such as the pattern and frequency of telephone calls, the time between calls, the presence or absence of abusive language on those calls, the location to which those calls were placed, and whether the debt collector called back after the recipient hung up.

One industry trade group commenter took a different approach, acknowledging that using a bright-line “number‐of‐calls” surrogate to determine either the debt collector's awareness of natural consequences or the debt collector's intent may be appropriate if the telephone number is known by the debt collector to belong to the consumer. This may be the case if the debt collector had prior contact with the consumer at that number or if the consumer is identified in a voicemail greeting. However, this commenter asserted that, if a telephone number is not known to belong to the consumer, and especially if the debt collector has several possible numbers for the consumer provided either by the creditor or a prior debt collector or obtained through the debt collector's own location efforts, then the proposed bright-line rule is at odds with the statutory mandate because there would be no intent to annoy, abuse, or harass.

Some industry commenters found the proposed bright-line rule to be too inflexible and noted a preference for a multi-factor approach to telephone call frequencies. These commenters were concerned that the bright-line approach would limit a debt collector's ability to reach consumers at different times and on different dates, and that it would hinder communication particularly in the context of settlement negotiations, loss mitigation discussions, and litigation. A credit union commenter expressed concern that a bright-line approach ignored the nature and content of the telephone conversation, which the commenter asserted is more instructive as to whether successive telephone calls have the effect of harassment, oppression, or abuse.

Several industry commenters advocated for a rule that would make telephone calls within particular limits per se compliant but allow debt collectors to rebut the presumption that calls in excess of any call frequency limit violate the FDCPA. One of these commenters claimed that the proposal would have deemed non-harassing telephone calls in excess of the proposed frequency limits a per se violation and therefore would have been inconsistent with FDCPA section 806(5). Another commenter disputed that the Bureau properly could conclude that every telephone call above the proposed limits would be problematic. The commenter urged the Bureau to permit a debt collector to make additional telephone calls if the debt collector concludes that there is a compelling reason to do so and that doing so will not harm the consumer, provided that the debt collector appropriately documents the basis for its decision.

A group of consumer advocates commented that a bright-line rule is generally in the best interest of consumers. However, the group also pointed out that setting the limits on a per-debt basis, as proposed, would insulate from liability a debt collector who was collecting on seven accounts even if the debt collector made the maximum allowable 49 calls per week, every week, with the intent to annoy, abuse, or harass. These commenters urged the Bureau to provide in the rule that complying with the telephone call frequency limits would create only a rebuttable presumption of compliance with § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5).[399]

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The same group of consumer advocates expressed concern that under the proposed bright-line rule, debt collectors who placed telephone calls within the specific proposed frequency limits would not be liable even if they placed those calls in rapid succession. The group also noted that debt collectors could target their successive telephone calls on weekends or holidays, which might be more likely to harass consumers. Another consumer advocate commented that it was less likely that a debt collector would use all of its permissible telephone calls on the same day if the frequency limit for weekly telephone calls was lower than what the Bureau proposed (this commenter suggested an alternative limit of three), but cautioned that, if a debt collector made seven telephone calls in one day, it would often be perceived as harassment by the consumer. A few industry commenters stated that it would be unlikely for debt collectors to make rapid succession telephone calls under a bright-line rule because that would use up the limited number of weekly telephone call attempts available to debt collectors. One commenter asserted that debt collectors would strategically space their telephone calls throughout the seven-day period to establish contact with the consumer. A nonprofit commenter, writing on behalf of a variety of stakeholders, expressed concern that imposing a bright-line limit on telephone calls and providing a safe harbor for compliance under that limit might encourage debt collectors to place the maximum permissible telephone call attempts, perhaps more than they would have placed without such a limit in place.

Comments Regarding Proposed Seven Telephone Call Weekly Frequency Limit

Some consumer and industry commenters supported the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit in proposed § 1006.14(b)(2)(i).[400] A debt buyer commenter stated the belief that the proposed limit would strike an appropriate balance by enabling consumers who demonstrate a willingness to pay their debts to connect by telephone with a representative to achieve a voluntary repayment schedule and thus avoid legal collection efforts. Industry commenters wrote that the proposed limit would provide a debt collector with multiple opportunities to connect with the consumer and give the debt collector time to work through multiple telephone numbers. Other commenters, including some consumers, believed the proposed limit would prevent harassment. Some industry commenters thought the proposed limit would reduce unnecessary litigation. Others urged the Bureau not to impose a lower limit than proposed because doing so, they asserted, would mean less opportunity for consumers to work out a payment plan and might lead to unintended harmful impacts on consumers and the economy if it were to hamper the efficiency of the debt collection process.

In contrast, as noted above, a significant number of commenters opposed the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit. Many commenters argued that the proposed limit was too high (i.e., too permissive). Many others argued that it was too low (i.e., too restrictive).

A diverse group of stakeholders criticized the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit as too permissive to provide meaningful consumer protection. Thousands of consumers opposed the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit because it would, in their view, allow debt collectors to harass consumers by calling them up to seven times per week, per debt. Other commenters criticized the proposed limit as applied to a consumer with multiple debts in collection, observing, for example, that the proposed limit would have permitted debt collectors to call a consumer with eight medical debts 56 times per week, or a consumer with five overdue bills 35 times per week.

Commenters, including consumers, consumer advocates, legal aid providers, members of Congress, State Attorneys General, academic institutions, an FTC Commissioner, and local governments, expressed concern that the proposed limit would lead to an excessive number of telephone calls. Some commenters believed this proposed limit would encourage debt collectors to engage in FDCPA-prohibited behavior. For example, a group of State Attorneys General noted that the proposal acknowledged that debt collectors are aware that many consumers have multiple debts in collection and are receiving telephone calls from other debt collectors and thus may place additional telephone calls with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass.

Some commenters raised the concern that, for a consumer with five debts being collected by the same debt collector, the permissible call volume for that debt collector would surpass the threshold for potential violations of FDCPA section 806(5). These commenters explained that courts have found as few as three to six telephone calls per week to be harassing and cited to existing frequency limits in Massachusetts, Washington State, and New York City as models for the Bureau. Some commenters discussed how technology advances may make consumers' experience of receiving repeated telephone calls more harassing. They noted that consumers often carry their mobile telephones with them, making frequent calls less necessary and more harassing; that the use of cloud-based services to link devices means that one message can notify a consumer multiple times; and that dialers can lead to repeated and annoying telephone calls.

Commenters, including legal aid providers, consumer advocates, and consumers, among others, described a plethora of ways that the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit would negatively impact consumers. Some commenters claimed the number of potential telephone calls would cause various social and emotional effects, such as overwhelming stress; anxiety; emotional distress, withdrawal, and social isolation; harms to one's social well-being and mental health; and physical health problems, including susceptibility to disease as a result of chronic stress and sleep disruptions. Some commenters cited lower work productivity as an effect of the number of potential telephone calls, because consumers could not easily turn off their mobile telephones to avoid telephone calls due to their need to remain reachable to work colleagues and family. Commenters also stated that the number of potential telephone calls would negatively affect certain subsets of consumers. Some expressed concern that the number of potential telephone calls would lead to consumers being pressured or coerced into paying even if their income is exempt from garnishment under Federal law—especially seniors and disabled individuals who are particularly vulnerable to abusive debt collection practices and who may be unaware of such protection. One local government commenter asserted that the proposed limit would disproportionately affect lower-income and minority consumers. Several commenters explained that Start Printed Page 76808lower-income consumers often have limited telephone plans, meaning that a high number of telephone calls may cause their plans to trigger a maximum limit or fill their voicemail boxes.

Some commenters argued that there is little to no evidence that debt collectors' ability to collect would be negatively impacted if the proposed limit was set at a number less than seven. Several consumer and nonprofit commenters asserted that a high number of telephone calls does not result in increased collections, with one commenter noting that a consumer's ability to pay will not increase regardless of how frequently the debt collector contacts the consumer. A State Attorney General and a nonprofit commenter suggested that the number of telephone calls that would be permitted under the proposed limit could result in consumers disengaging or being too stressed to answer the telephone, which would frustrate, rather than facilitate, debt resolution. One commenter noted how the Bureau of the Fiscal Service of the U.S. Department of Treasury conducted a pilot program focused on servicing defaulted student loans; the program found that borrowers answered less than 2 percent of telephone calls, which the commenter argued shows the ineffectiveness of repeated calls. An FTC Commissioner commented that, with each successive telephone call after the first, the value decreases to the consumer because the consumer is less likely to answer and receive information, yet the value increases to the debt collector because it causes undue stress to the alleged debtor; thus, by the time a sixth or seventh call comes in, harassing rather than informing seems to be the marginal utility.

Consumer, legal aid provider, and consumer advocate commenters asserted that the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit would increase telephone call volume from the status quo, particularly, as some noted, for location information calls. Some commenters acknowledged that the proposal would appear to limit or decrease telephone call volume for consumers with one debt but noted that telephone call volume would likely increase overall for consumers with multiple debts in collection.

Relatedly, some commenters focused their criticism on how the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit would not have covered the cumulative number of communications, particularly electronic communications, and how the proposed limit was structured as a per-debt limit, not a per-person limit. Some commenters expressed the view that allowing up to seven telephone calls per week per debt would be excessive and permit harassing tactics in the absence of additional limits on electronic communications. A group of State legislators and several consumer advocate commenters identified the number of telephone calls for student loan and medical debt that would be permitted under the proposal as particularly concerning. Others explained that it is common for seniors in particular to have several medical debts placed with the same debt collector, and that it is common for a debt collection agency to collect numerous separate accounts for the same consumer. A legal aid provider noted that consumers seeking its assistance with debt collection issues usually have more than one debt, which multiplies the number of telephone calls they receive daily. The commenter asserted that this situation increases the chance that any one debt collector will say or do something untruthful or threatening, which in turn increases the probability that consumers will act hastily and not understand their rights.

Commenters suggested a variety of lower limits for permissible telephone call frequency. A large number of consumer commenters urged specific limits, such as two or three telephone call attempts per consumer, per week.[401] Consumer advocate and nonprofit commenters also recommended the Bureau limit debt collectors to three telephone call attempts per consumer, per week. Other suggestions included: Seven attempts per week, per type of debt (i.e., medical, credit card); three cumulative attempts across all communication media per week, per consumer; and three attempts per week, per debt. One nonprofit and one local government commenter urged the Bureau to follow the limits discussed in the Small Business Review Panel Outline.[402] A local government agency commenter noted the local government has operated for decades under a limit of two contacts about a debt per seven-day calendar period.

Industry trade groups and other industry commenters generally opposed the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit, arguing it was too restrictive. The Bureau received hundreds of comments from industry stakeholders who expressed concern that the proposed telephone call frequency limits were too constraining. Hundreds of creditor and collections industry commenters stated that reaching consumers by telephone is very difficult because most consumers have several telephone numbers and are often unavailable to speak. They wrote that the proposed limit would make it harder to connect with consumers and asserted that consumers would face various unintended consequences, including failure to reach workable repayment plans, additional interest and fees, negative credit reporting, and debt collection litigation. Separately, many accounts receivable management industry commenters stated that limiting communication would harm consumers because consumers fare best when they know their full financial situation and all available options.

Industry commenters asserted that, based on their experience, the proposed limit would not have permitted enough telephone call attempts to establish contact with consumers. Some commenters argued that the Bureau should not limit telephone call attempts because debt collectors must attempt to contact multiple numbers at various times of the day in order to establish right party contact, while other commenters requested that the proposed limit be increased for the same reasons. One industry trade group commenter, citing a 2016 survey of its members, noted that certain debt categories have an average of more than six telephone numbers per account and that student loans have an average of four telephone numbers per account. Another industry trade group commenter, representing debt collectors for student loans, among other members, cited data from one of its members that it takes 20 attempts on average to reach a consumer. A debt collector commented that it typically receives one to two telephone numbers from the creditor from which its debts are purchased and three to five new telephone numbers when trying to locate a consumer, meaning that it takes approximately 50 to 75 telephone calls to reach a single consumer. One commenter explained that, because consumers can always request that a debt collector stop calling, there is no need for a limit on weekly telephone Start Printed Page 76809calls. A debt collector commenter suggested limiting only actual communications and not attempts, noting that debt collectors often have multiple telephone numbers to work through.

Industry stakeholders and other commenters expressed various concerns about the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit and stated it could have negative impacts on consumers. Some asserted that it would be overly burdensome; explained that a different approach may be needed based on the type of consumer, debt, or account status; and suggested the limit should account for smartphone technology and call blocking rules that have increased blocked calls from legitimate financial service providers. Some commenters expressed concern that the proposed limit would increase debt collectors' costs or more broadly have a negative impact on the economy, especially for small businesses. Commenters asserted that the limit would lengthen the debt resolution process and provide fewer opportunities to resolve debts in the manner best suited for the situation and, as a result, increase interest, fees, and penalties for consumers. Commenters wrote that consumers would be unable to obtain critical information about their accounts in collections, including when they ask a debt collector to call them back at a different, more convenient time or after they gather more information. Commenters also stated that consumers would experience increases in litigation, credit reporting, and wage garnishment and offsets. Commenters explained that the proposed limit would negatively affect access to credit and increase the cost of credit for all consumers. They also argued that the proposed limit would lead to an increase in letters, text messages, and emails, even though some consumers may prefer telephone calls to other communication media.

Some industry commenters argued that the Bureau lacked data and other evidence to support the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit. Some urged the Bureau to study more thoroughly the number of telephone call attempts that would be necessary to ensure that effective communication is not needlessly hindered.

Some commenters requested that the Bureau impose different limits on telephone call frequency to address different circumstances. For example, some commenters argued that the proposed telephone call frequency limits should not apply once litigation or other civil action is initiated (or, as the SBA urged, specifically while a settlement is being negotiated) to enable communication between consumers and attorneys to resolve the matter quickly before going to court. These commenters explained that a debtor may need to consult with someone else before agreeing to a repayment plan and may need additional telephone calls with the debt collector during the week. One debt collector commenter suggested an alternative frequency limit of 15 telephone call attempts per consumer, per debt, which the commenter wrote was based on an internal data analysis. An industry trade group pointed to specific circumstances necessitating additional calls, such as resolving a dishonored check or correcting a deficiency in loan consolidation or rehabilitation paperwork. Some commenters also identified reverse mortgages and student loans as specific markets that would be negatively affected by the proposed limit.

Several commenters challenged the Bureau's exercise of FDCPA authority to impose the proposed telephone call frequency limits.[403] Commenters focused on what they believed was the failure of the proposed telephone call frequency limits to properly reflect the FDCPA section 806(5) “intent” standard. Some noted that there are a number of reasons why debt collectors would make such telephone calls, most of which are not intended to intimidate or pressure the consumer. Another commenter argued that Congress considered and rejected telephone call frequency limits when it passed the FDCPA.

Comments Regarding Proposed One Telephone Conversation Weekly Frequency Limit

Many commenters, including comments from approximately 500 credit unions, expressed support for the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit. Some commenters stated agreement with the Bureau's reasoning in the proposal that a debt collector who has been able to engage in a telephone conversation with a consumer about a debt generally has less reason to communicate with the consumer within the following week and expressed the belief that the proposed limit would permit regular communication while also preventing harassment. An industry commenter noted that, if there is a legitimate reason for another telephone call, proposed § 1006.14(b)(3) provided for several reasonable exceptions. A consumer advocate commenter noted that the proposed limit was intuitive because it would permit a weekly reminder to consumers who owe a debt, but nevertheless stated a belief that the limit would be problematic when coupled with the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit.

Many commenters, including a group of consumer advocates, supported the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit but expressed the view that imposing such a limit on a per-debt basis would be too permissive because it could result in harassment for consumers who have multiple debts in collection.[404] Some commenters noted that the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit is particularly concerning in the context of medical debt and student loan debt, where there are often several debts collected by the same debt collector.

In contrast, a number of industry commenters expressed concern with the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit. They asserted that the proposed limit would undermine the proposal's purpose of assisting consumers in making better-informed decisions about debts they owe or allegedly owe and would instead harm consumers by causing them to miss information and opportunities to avoid negative consequences. Several industry commenters explained that, for debt collectors, consistency in communications and good customer service is essential to providing the best solutions. Others noted that, after successful communication has been established with a consumer, limiting continued communication is not in the best interest of the consumer or the debt collector. One industry trade group commenter cautioned that the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit would result in higher rates of delinquency, which in turn would cause creditors to tighten Start Printed Page 76810underwriting and lend less money generally. Another commenter noted that the proposed limit would lead to increased credit reporting and litigation.

Commenters identified a number of situations for which they believed more frequent communication would be particularly important. Industry trade group commenters cited the examples of a consumer working out a debt modification or forbearance and of debts involving motor vehicles if there is a risk of repossession. Several industry commenters described the scenario of a consumer asking for more time to pay or promising to pay but the consumer did not follow through. Some commenters pointed to if consumers are at risk of foreclosure or engaged in loss mitigation.

In the proposal, the Bureau sought comment on the alternative of limiting only the total number of telephone calls a debt collector could place about a debt during a defined time period, regardless of whether the debt collector had engaged in a conversation with that person about that debt during the relevant period. At least one commenter supported this alternative approach of limiting the total number of telephone calls, but not conversations, while another commenter supported the inverse—limiting actual conversations, but not the total number of telephone calls.

A small number of commenters addressed how the proposal generally would have counted a consumer-initiated conversation as the debt collector's one permissible telephone call for the next seven consecutive days. A group of consumer advocates supported this aspect of the proposal, asking the Bureau to specify that the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit applies regardless of whether the debt collector or consumer initiated the conversation. On the other hand, an industry trade group requested that the Bureau exempt consumer-initiated calls from the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit. See the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(4) for more detail on how these comments are addressed.

Commenters also addressed the exclusions in proposed § 1006.14(b)(3) in the context of the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit. The Bureau discusses comments relating to the proposed exclusions in more detail in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(3) below.

Some commenters suggested alternative time periods for the proposed one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit. A group of nonprofit commenters suggested a limit of one telephone call every two weeks, explaining that a biweekly limit would decrease the overall frequency of telephone calls directed toward consumers, while still allowing debt collectors the opportunity to collect payment based on a timeframe whereby the consumer is more likely to have the funds to pay the debt. Other comments suggesting alternative time periods are described under the subheading Comments Regarding Proposed Seven Telephone Call Weekly Frequency Limit above.

The Final Rule

The Bureau is not finalizing the proposed telephone call frequency limits, which would have imposed bright-line rules regarding telephone calls. Rather, final § 1006.14(b)(2) includes telephone call frequencies as part of a more flexible rebuttable-presumption framework.

Final § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) provides that, subject to the exclusions in § 1006.14(b)(3), a debt collector is presumed to comply with § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5) if the debt collector places a telephone call to a particular person in connection with the collection of a particular debt neither: (1) More than seven times within seven consecutive days; nor (2) within a period of seven consecutive days after having had a telephone conversation with the person in connection with the collection of such debt (with the date of the telephone conversation being the first day of the seven-consecutive-day period).[405] Section 1006.14(b)(2)(ii) provides that, subject to the exclusions in § 1006.14(b)(3), a debt collector is presumed to violate § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5) if a debt collector places a telephone call to a particular person in connection with the collection of a particular debt in excess of either of the telephone call frequencies described in § 1006.14(b)(2)(i). Comments 14(b)(2)(i)-1 and 14(b)(2)(ii)-1 include examples illustrating when a debt collector has a presumption of compliance or of a violation, respectively. Comments 14(b)(2)(i)-2 and 14(b)(2)(ii)-2 clarify how the presumptions can be rebutted and include non-exhaustive lists of factors that may rebut the respective presumptions. More detail on the operation of the rebuttable-presumption framework and the rebuttal factors described in the commentary is provided below.

Rebuttable-presumption approach generally; rationale for change from proposed bright-line rule. The Bureau proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) to specify a bright-line rule for telephone call frequencies that would have violated FDCPA section 806 and 806(5) and Regulation F, with narrow exceptions in proposed § 1006.14(b)(3). As noted earlier, FDCPA section 806 prohibits a broad range of debt collection communication practices that harm consumers and others, and section 806(5) in particular prohibits debt collectors from making telephone calls or engaging a person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass. FDCPA section 806(5) does not identify a specific number of telephone calls or telephone conversations within any particular timeframe that would violate the statute. In the FTC Staff Commentary on the FDCPA, the FTC noted, among other interpretations, that “ `[c]ontinuously' means making a series of telephone calls, one right after the other” and “ `[r]epeatedly' means calling with excessive frequency under the circumstances.” [406] Since the FDCPA was enacted in 1977, courts interpreting FDCPA section 806(5) have not developed a consensus or bright-line test for telephone call frequency that would violate that provision. Moreover, while several States and localities have imposed numerical limits on debt collection contacts, the limits vary, and most jurisdictions have not established any numerical limits.[407] Technological developments also have intensified the consumer-protection concerns underlying FDCPA section 806(5), as described in the proposal.[408]

In light of these developments, numerous problems with telephone call frequency persist. As the proposal described, frequent telephone calls are a consistent source of consumer-initiated litigation and consumer complaints to Federal and State regulators, and consumers' lawsuits allege injuries such as feeling harassed, stressed, intimidated, or threatened, and sometimes allege adverse impacts on employment.[409] In addition, from 2011 through 2018, the Bureau and the FTC received over 100,000 complaints about repeated debt collection telephone Start Printed Page 76811calls.[410] As described in the FDCPA 2020 Annual Report, during 2019, consumers submitted complaints about communication tactics used when collecting debts, and the majority of complaints about communication tactics concerned communication over the telephone. Common categories of complaints about communication tactics were frequent or repeated calls (55 percent) and continued contact attempts despite requests to stop contact (29 percent).[411]

Consumers' experiences with, and complaints about, repeated or continuous debt collection telephone calls do not necessarily establish that the conduct in each instance would have violated FDCPA section 806(5).[412] But they do suggest, as described in the proposal, a widespread consumer protection problem that has persisted for 40 years notwithstanding the FDCPA's existing prohibitions and case-by-case enforcement by the FTC and the Bureau as well as private FDCPA actions.[413] To address this persistent harm, the Bureau proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) as described above.

The proposed telephone call frequency limits accounted for a number of competing considerations, as described in the proposal. On the one hand, even a small number of debt collection calls may have the natural consequence of causing a consumer to experience harassment, oppression, or abuse, and therefore, assuming the debt collector is aware of this effect, the debt collector's placement of even a small number of such calls to that consumer may indicate that the debt collector has the requisite intent to annoy, abuse, or harass.[414] At the same time, debt collectors have a legitimate interest in reaching consumers because communicating with consumers is central to their ability to recover amounts owed to creditors, and too greatly restricting debt collectors' and consumers' ability to communicate with one another could prevent debt collectors from establishing right-party contact and resolving debts, even when doing so is in the interests of both consumers and debt collectors.[415] The Bureau also considered whether debt collectors' reliance on making repeated telephone calls to establish contact with consumers could be reduced by other aspects of the proposal designed to address legal uncertainty regarding how and when debt collectors may communicate with consumers [416] and regarding how debt collectors may use electronic communication media.[417] In view of all these considerations, the Bureau proposed to draw the line at which a debt collector places telephone calls repeatedly or continuously with the intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number (and the line at which such calls have the natural consequence of harassing, oppressing, or abusing any person) at seven telephone calls in a seven-day period about a particular debt. The proposal would have allowed debt collectors to call up to seven times per week across multiple telephone numbers (e.g., a home landline, mobile, work), and to leave a limited-content message each time, and it would have not placed a specific numerical limit on how many letters, emails, and text messages debt collectors could send.

The Bureau similarly balanced a variety of policy considerations in proposing the one telephone conversation weekly frequency limit, as described in the proposal. The Bureau considered both the legitimate interests of consumers and debt collectors in resolving debts and the potentially harmful effects on consumers of repeated or continuous telephone calls after a telephone conversation. A debt collector who already has engaged in a telephone conversation with a consumer about a debt may have less of a need to place additional telephone calls to that consumer about that debt within the next seven days than a debt collector who has yet to reach a consumer. As a result, a debt collector who has already conversed with a consumer may be more likely to intend to annoy, abuse, or harass the consumer by placing additional telephone calls within one week after a telephone conversation. At the same time, a consumer who has spoken by telephone to a debt collector about a debt may be more likely than a consumer who has not spoken by telephone to a debt collector about a debt to experience annoyance, abuse, or harassment if the debt collector places additional, unwanted telephone calls to the consumer about that debt again within the next seven days.[418]

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In the proposal, the Bureau sought comment on a rebuttable-presumption approach as an alternative to a bright-line rule where: (1) A debt collector who places telephone calls at or below the frequency limits presumptively would comply with § 1006.14(b)(1); (2) a debt collector who exceeds the frequency limits presumptively would violate § 1006.14(b)(1); and (3) the presumptions could be rebutted based on the facts and circumstances of a particular situation. The Bureau explained that it did not propose the rebuttable-presumption approach because the benefits of such an approach were unclear. The Bureau stated its preliminary view that most, if not all, of the circumstances that might require a debt collector to exceed the proposed telephone call frequency limits could be addressed by specific exceptions to a bright-line rule; and the Bureau wrote that a well-defined, bright-line rule with specific exceptions could provide needed flexibility without sacrificing the clarity of a bright-line rule. The Bureau noted that a bright-line rule may also promote predictability and reduce the risk and uncertainty of litigation.[419]

The comments from thousands of stakeholders, evidencing a range of viewpoints on the issue of telephone call frequency limits, reflect the inherent challenges in trying to craft a rule for telephone call frequencies that appropriately balances consumer protection with the interests of debt collectors and consumers in efficient operation of the debt collection process. The Bureau proposed to draw a bright line, reasoning that the certainty and predictability of telephone call frequency limits outweighed the benefits of a more flexible approach, such as a rebuttable-presumption rule. After considering the robust comments on the proposal, the Bureau now has decided to adopt a different approach.

As described earlier, consumer advocates, State Attorneys General, legal aid providers, consumers, and various other stakeholders strongly opposed the proposed telephone call frequency limits, arguing that the proposed bright-line rule would insufficiently protect consumers. They cited various scenarios in which seven or fewer telephone calls within a week could still annoy, harass, or abuse consumers and indicate the debt collector's intent to do so. One scenario commenters highlighted was rapid succession calling, in which a debt collector places a series of telephone calls in rapid succession over the course of just a few minutes as a potential way of harassing, annoying, or abusing a consumer, even if the cumulative number of telephone calls did not exceed the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit. Commenters also argued, for example, that consumers could be harassed, annoyed, or abused if a debt collector placed up to seven telephone calls over the course of a week even after the consumer had indicated the consumer did not want to be contacted again or did not owe the debt in question.[420] The consistent theme in these comments was that the proposed telephone call frequency limits still left room for consumers to be annoyed, harassed, or abused depending on the circumstances of the telephone calls.

At the same time, debt collectors, industry trade groups, and other industry commenters provided a variety of arguments for why a bright-line rule for telephone call frequencies would be potentially detrimental to consumers and unworkable from an operational perspective. They asserted that various types of telephone calls warranted a more permissive approach, such as telephone calls required by applicable law (e.g., to alert the consumer of loss-mitigation options) or placed as part of active litigation. Others argued that the rule should permit debt collectors to place telephone calls that would enable the consumer to avoid imminent, demonstrable negative consequences, such as an impending foreclosure or automobile repossession. Having considered these comments, the Bureau has decided that the proposed bright-line rule may not have adequately accounted for situations in which the purpose, context, and effect of certain telephone calls may reflect not an intent to harass, annoy, or abuse the consumer, but rather an intent to help the consumer avoid a negative outcome or an intent to comply with law. Although the Bureau did propose a handful of exclusions from the telephone call frequency limits,[421] the Bureau recognizes that it is difficult to anticipate all scenarios that would merit exclusion or more lenient treatment and has decided that the proposal's list of exclusions was insufficient.

The Bureau also recognizes the arguments made by stakeholders about the weight of the evidence the Bureau used to justify the proposed telephone call frequency limits and the particular legal authorities on which the Bureau proposed to rely. Consumer advocates and other commenters challenging the proposed telephone call frequency limits cited, among other sources, language in the proposal's preamble, Bureau and FTC consumer complaint data, certain judicial decisions, and some State and local laws to argue for stricter limits. On the other hand, industry commenters challenged the Bureau's basis for setting the limits in the proposal by citing different case law, internal data analyses in some cases, and other sources. Moreover, as discussed above, under the proposal the Bureau would have interpreted the FDCPA to set bright-line limits at the specified levels; the Bureau also proposed that such limits were necessary to prevent an identified unfair practice under section 1031 of the Dodd-Frank Act, premises which were challenged by some stakeholders.

As discussed above, there are competing considerations inherent in crafting a workable telephone call frequency standard that adequately protects consumers. During this rulemaking process, telephone call frequency limits generated strong reaction from stakeholders who possess different and reasonably held views on what the limits should be, or whether there even should be limits at all. And as noted above, case law is unsettled on the question of how FDCPA section 806(5) draws the line at permissible telephone call frequency,[422] which is Start Printed Page 76813reinforced by the fact that commenters cited different opinions to buttress their respective positions on the proposed limits.[423]

The Bureau has reconsidered the bright-line rule approach and has decided to finalize instead a rebuttable-presumption approach to telephone call frequency. The rebuttable-presumption framework provides additional flexibility, as well as enhanced consumer protections in certain respects. The telephone call frequencies remain as proposed—i.e., seven telephone calls and one conversation per week, per debt—but, under the final rule, the debt collector is only presumed to comply with or violate § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5) based on those frequency levels. As discussed below, the commentary being adopted in the final rule clarifies the operation of the rebuttable presumption and includes lists of non-exhaustive factors that stakeholders may use to rebut the presumptions, along with examples.

The Bureau has determined that the rebuttable-presumption framework better balances the competing considerations regarding telephone call frequency. As the Bureau noted in the proposal, a rebuttable-presumption approach does not provide the same level of predictability or litigation-risk reduction as a bright-line rule. But the final rule does provide greater certainty than the status quo. The Bureau is adopting a standard that anchors the telephone call frequency limits at specified levels—seven telephone calls per week, per debt, and one conversation per week, per debt—while permitting variances from those frequency levels when stakeholders can prove that specific factual circumstances merit them. Moreover, the detailed commentary being adopted in the final rule clarifying the operation of the rebuttable presumption and including examples will inform judicial analysis of line-drawing questions in applying FDCPA section 806(5). More broadly, the Bureau is now persuaded that the additional flexibility afforded by the rebuttable-presumption approach outweighs the enhanced certainty and clarity that would have been provided by the proposed bright-line rule. The final rule also contains certain enhanced consumer protections. For example, the proposed bright-line rule would not have addressed circumstances in which debt collectors engage in rapid succession calling while still complying with the proposed seven telephone call weekly frequency limit. This final rule addresses this conduct.[424]

Notwithstanding the final rule's shift to a rebuttable-presumption approach, the Bureau is retaining the specific numeric frequency limits that it proposed. The Bureau determines as a general matter that the FDCPA case law, the high volume of consumer complaints in this area, the evidence described in the Bureau's FDCPA Reports, technological developments, and other policy considerations described in this section-by-section analysis and in the proposal support a regulatory intervention that clarifies the limits on telephone call frequency. In addition, as discussed in the proposal, when Congress conferred FDCPA rulemaking authority on the Bureau through the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, it relied, in part, on consumers' experiences with repeated or continuous debt collection telephone calls to observe that case-by-case enforcement of the FDCPA had not ended the consumer harms that the statute was designed to address.[425]

Relatedly, the Bureau declines to change the specific levels for the telephone call frequency in § 1006.14(b)(2) in response to certain commenters' suggestions to set lower or higher limits. As noted above, a common suggestion by commenters urging stricter limits was three telephone call attempts per week, per consumer. Conversely, industry commenters urged the Bureau to adopt more permissive limits, such as 15 telephone calls per week, per debt. The Bureau has determined that the specific levels proposed as telephone call frequency limits—seven telephone calls and one conversation, per debt, in each seven-consecutive-day period—are reasonable policy judgments in view of the existing evidence and the competing considerations discussed above (and in the proposal), within a rebuttable-presumption framework. The final rule allows rebuttal of the presumption of compliance or of a violation, respectively, even if the debt collector places telephone calls at or below, or in excess of, the telephone call frequency levels. Consequently, the rebuttable-presumption framework addresses many of the policy concerns animating the requests for higher or lower limits under a bright-line rule.[426]

The Bureau recognizes that many commenters—particularly consumer advocates, State Attorneys General, and consumers—criticized the proposal for imposing limits on a per-debt, rather than per-person, basis. The per-debt approach is unchanged in the final rule. The section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(4) discusses the Bureau's reasoning for finalizing the per-debt approach as proposed.Start Printed Page 76814

The Bureau also is not finalizing any of the variations of the rebuttable-presumption approach on which the Bureau sought comment in the proposal, such as finalizing only a presumption of compliance or violation (but not both), or finalizing a safe harbor for telephone calls below the specified frequency paired with a presumption of a violation for telephone calls above the specified frequency (or the opposite). The Bureau believes these variations would add needless complexity to the framework without clear benefits, in comparison to the rebuttable-presumption approach adopted in the final rule. Further, any variation that includes a per se rule as an element of the framework would suffer from the same disadvantages as commenters identified with the proposed bright-line rule.

Rebuttable Presumption of Compliance

As noted above, § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) provides for a rebuttable presumption of compliance. Under § 1006.14(b)(2)(i), subject to the exclusions in § 1006.14(b)(3), a debt collector is presumed to comply with § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5) if the debt collector places a telephone call to a particular person in connection with the collection of a particular debt neither: (1) More than seven times within seven consecutive days; nor (2) within a period of seven consecutive days after having had a telephone conversation with the person in connection with the collection of such debt. The date of the telephone conversation is the first day of the seven-consecutive-day period.

The final rule includes new commentary to clarify various aspects of the telephone call frequency provisions and the rebuttable-presumption framework.[427] Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-1 describes the rebuttable presumption of compliance and emphasizes that, to have the presumption of compliance, the debt collector's telephone call frequencies must not exceed the limits set in either prong of § 1006.14(b)(2)(i). The comment also includes three examples illustrating the application of the rule and the circumstances in which the debt collector would be presumed to comply with § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5).

Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2 clarifies how the presumption of compliance can be rebutted and includes a non-exhaustive list of factors that may rebut the presumption of compliance. The comment first clarifies that, to rebut a presumption of compliance, it must be proven that a debt collector who did not place a telephone call in excess of either of the telephone call frequencies described in § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) nevertheless placed a telephone call or engaged a person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number. This language in the comment generally tracks the language of FDCPA section 806(5). Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2 also explains that, for purposes of determining whether the presumption of compliance has been rebutted, it is assumed that debt collectors intend the natural consequence of their actions. The Bureau has included this language to clarify how the rebuttable presumption relates to the “natural consequence” language in FDCPA section 806 and the intent requirement in FDCPA section 806(5). The Bureau notes that some commenters criticized the proposed telephone call frequency limits as not incorporating the FDCPA section 806(5) intent requirement. In the proposal, the Bureau cited judicial decisions to support the interpretation that debt collectors generally intend the natural consequence of their actions.[428] The Bureau finds the two opinions cited in the proposal persuasive because one logically harmonizes the “natural consequence” language in FDCPA section 806 with the intent requirement in FDCPA section 806(5),[429] while the other recognizes “perhaps the oldest rule of evidence” applied across areas of law—that a person “is presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of [that person's] acts.” [430] Accordingly, the Bureau has incorporated this concept in comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2.[431]

Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2 also clarifies that the non-exhaustive list of factors in comments 14(b)(2)(i)-2.i through .iv may be considered either individually or in combination with one another or with other, non-specified factors. The comment further clarifies that the factors may be viewed in light of any other relevant facts and circumstances and therefore may apply to varying degrees. The Bureau notes that the factors included in comments 14(b)(2)(i)-2.i through .iv are generally aligned with circumstances cited by courts as relevant to the determination of whether FDCPA section 806(5) has been violated.[432]

Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2.i clarifies that the frequency and pattern of telephone calls the debt collector places to a person, including the intervals between them, is a factor that may rebut the presumption of compliance. The comment further clarifies the considerations relevant to this factor include whether the debt collector placed telephone calls to a person in rapid succession (e.g., two unanswered telephone calls to the same telephone number within five minutes) or in a Start Printed Page 76815highly concentrated manner (e.g., seven telephone calls to the same telephone number within one day). Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2.i then provides an example illustrating application of this factor. The Bureau has included this factor because many commenters raised the pattern and frequency of telephone calls as relevant to determining intent under FDCPA section 806(5), and courts have often cited this factor as well, as described above. The Bureau believes that the frequency and pattern of the telephone calls, including the intervals between them, are indicative of both the intent of the debt collector and the natural consequence on the person called. The Bureau has also included specific language in the comment to address concerns raised by commenters about debt collectors engaging in rapid succession calling or placing telephone calls in a concentrated matter on days that may be less convenient for some consumers (such as Sundays or holidays).[433] Application of this factor is not limited to rapid succession or highly concentrated calling, however, and is dependent on all of the relevant facts and circumstances that may indicate an intent on the part of the debt collector to harass, annoy, or abuse the consumer.

Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2.ii clarifies that the frequency and pattern of any voicemails the debt collector leaves for a person, including the intervals between them, is another factor that may rebut the presumption of compliance. The comment notes that the considerations relevant to this factor include whether the debt collector left voicemails for a person in rapid succession (e.g., two voicemails within five minutes left at the same telephone number) or in a highly concentrated manner (e.g., seven voicemails left at the same telephone number within one day). The Bureau included this factor for similar reasons to those underlying inclusion of the factor in comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2.i.

Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2.iii clarifies that another factor that may rebut the presumption of compliance is the content of a person's prior communications with the debt collector. The comment explains that among the considerations relevant to this factor are whether the person previously informed the debt collector, for example, that the person did not wish to be contacted again about the particular debt, that the person refused to pay the particular debt, or that the person did not owe the particular debt. The comment clarifies that this factor also includes a consumer's cease communication notification described in § 1006.6(c) and a consumer's request under § 1006.14(h) that the debt collector not use telephone calls to communicate or attempt to communicate with the consumer. The comment also clarifies that the amount of time elapsed since any such prior communications may be relevant to this factor. The Bureau has included this factor based on concerns raised by commenters that a debt collector could annoy, harass, or abuse consumers by continuing to place telephone calls even after the person informed the debt collector about the person's desire not to be contacted again about the particular debt or that the consumer does not owe or refuses to pay the particular debt. Although the number of additional telephone calls at issue would not exceed the telephone call frequencies, in view of the prior conversation, especially a recent prior conversation, the person may be more likely to find the additional telephone calls annoying, harassing, or abusive. Moreover, the Bureau believes that in this circumstance it generally would be more likely that the debt collector intended to annoy, harass, or abuse the person.[434]

Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2.iv clarifies that a factor that may be used to rebut the presumption of compliance is the debt collector's conduct in prior communications or attempts to communicate with the person. The comment explains that among the considerations relevant to this factor are whether, during a prior communication or attempt to communicate with a person, the debt collector, for example, used obscene, profane, or otherwise abusive language (see § 1006.14(d)), used or threatened to use violence or other criminal means to harm the person (see § 1006.14(c)), or called at an unusual or inconvenient time or place (see § 1006.6(b)(1)). The comment also clarifies that the amount of time elapsed since any such prior communications or attempts to communicate may be relevant to this factor. The Bureau has included this factor for similar reasons as comment 14(b)(2)(i)-2.iii. The Bureau believes that, if a debt collector previously used obscene language or threatened violence during a debt collection telephone call, or called at an inconvenient place or time, and thereby violated another rule provision (and the FDCPA itself), then the person receiving the subsequent telephone calls may be more likely to find they are annoying, harassing, or abusive. The Bureau also believes that by placing the subsequent telephone calls, it generally would be more likely that the debt collector intended to annoy, harass, or abuse the person.

Comment 14(b)(2)(i)-3, which is substantively unchanged from proposed comment 14(b)(2)-2, addresses misdirected telephone calls. The comment explains that, for purposes of the telephone call frequencies in § 1006.14(b)(2)(i), if within a period of seven consecutive days, a debt collector attempts to communicate with a particular person by placing telephone calls to a particular telephone number, and the debt collector then learns that the telephone number is not that person's number, the telephone calls that the debt collector made to that number are not considered to have been telephone calls placed to that person during that seven-day period for purposes of § 1006.14(b)(2)(i). The comment also provides an example illustrating application of the rule. As the Bureau wrote in the proposal, a person is unlikely to be harassed by debt collection calls that are placed to a telephone number that belongs to someone else.[435]

Rebuttable Presumption of a Violation

As noted above, § 1006.14(b)(2)(ii) provides that a debt collector is presumed to violate § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5) if the debt collector places a telephone call to a particular person in connection with the collection of a particular debt in excess of either of the telephone call frequencies described in Start Printed Page 76816§ 1006.14(b)(2)(i). The telephone call frequencies are subject to the exclusions in § 1006.14(b)(3). Comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-1 provides two examples illustrating the rule.

Comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2 clarifies how the presumption of a violation can be rebutted and includes a non-exhaustive list of factors that may rebut the presumption of a violation. The comment clarifies that, to rebut the presumption of a violation, it must be proven that a debt collector who placed a telephone call in excess of either of the frequencies described in § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) nevertheless did not place a telephone call or engage any person in telephone conversation repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number. The comment clarifies that, for purposes of determining whether a presumption of a violation has been rebutted, it is assumed that debt collectors intend the natural consequence of their actions. The comment notes that comments 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.i through .iv provide a non-exhaustive list of factors that may rebut the presumption of a violation.[436] The comment explains that the factors may be considered either individually or in combination with one another or other non-specified factors.[437] The comment also clarifies that the factors may be viewed in light of any other relevant facts and circumstances and therefore may apply to varying degrees.[438]

Comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.i clarifies that one factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation is whether a debt collector placed a telephone call to comply with, or as required by, applicable law. The comment provides an example in which a debt collector placed one telephone call above the applicable telephone call frequency limit to inform the consumer of available loss mitigation options in compliance with the Bureau's mortgage servicing rules under Regulation X, 12 CFR 1024.39(a). The comment clarifies that the debt collector's compliance with applicable law is a factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation. The Bureau includes this factor because telephone calls placed to comply with or as required by applicable law generally would not reflect an intent on the part of the debt collector to harass, annoy, or abuse a consumer. Numerous commenters cited compliance with applicable law as a basis for excluding a telephone call from the proposed bright-line telephone call frequency limits pursuant to § 1006.14(b)(3). The Bureau is not excluding this category of telephone calls from the frequency limits entirely, however, because, as stated in the proposal, the Bureau understands that legally required communications infrequently are delivered over the telephone, in contrast to by mail or other means.

Comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.ii describes that another factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation is whether a debt collector placed a telephone call that was directly related to active litigation involving the collection of a particular debt. The comment provides an example in which an additional telephone call beyond the applicable telephone call frequency was placed to complete a court-ordered communication with the consumer about the debt, or as part of negotiations to settle active debt collection litigation regarding the debt. The comment explains that the direct relationship between the additional telephone call and the active debt collection litigation is a factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation.[439] The Bureau has included this factor because these types of telephone calls may enable communication between consumers and debt collectors to resolve a debt collection matter during litigation and, depending on the facts and circumstances, may not reflect an intent on the part of the debt collector to harass, annoy, or abuse the consumer.

Comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.iii clarifies that another factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation is whether a debt collector placed a telephone call in response to a consumer's request for additional information when the exclusion in § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) for telephone calls made with the consumer's prior consent given directly to the debt collector did not apply. The comment includes an example in which, during a telephone conversation, the consumer tells the debt collector that the consumer would like more information about the amount of the debt but that the consumer cannot talk at that moment, and the consumer ends the telephone call before the debt collector can seek prior consent under § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) to call back with the requested information.[440] The fact that the debt collector placed the additional call in response to the consumer's request is a factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation. The Bureau has included this factor based on consideration of circumstances in which the debt collector places a telephone call in response to the consumer's request, and thus may be placing the call without intent to harass, annoy, or abuse the consumer, but where the exclusion under § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) does not apply because the debt collector has not obtained the consumer's consent.

Comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.iv clarifies that a factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation is whether a debt collector placed a telephone call to convey information to the consumer that, as shown through evidence, would provide the consumer with an opportunity to avoid a demonstrably negative effect relating to the collection of the particular debt, where the negative effect was not in the debt collector's control, and where time was of the essence.[441] Comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.iv.A provides the following example: A debt collector and consumer engage in a lengthy conversation regarding settlement terms; the call drops toward the end of the conversation; and the debt collector immediately places an additional telephone call to complete Start Printed Page 76817the conversation. As explained in the comment, the fact that the debt collector placed the telephone call to permit the debt collector and the consumer to complete the conversation about settlement terms, which provides the consumer an opportunity to avoid a demonstrably negative effect that was not in the debt collector's control (i.e., having to repeat a substantive conversation with a potentially different representative of the debt collector) and where time was of the essence (i.e., to prevent the delay of settlement negotiations by seven days), is a factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation.

Comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.iv.B provides an example in which: A consumer previously entered into a payment plan with the debt collector regarding a debt; the conditions for the payment plan were set by the creditor; among those conditions is that only the creditor, in its sole discretion, may approve waivers of late fees; the debt collector learns on a Monday that the consumer's payment failed to process, and the applicable grace period is set to expire the next day; and the debt collector places a telephone call to the consumer on that Monday to remind the consumer that a late fee will be applied by the creditor for non-payment unless the consumer makes the payment by the next day. As explained in the comment, the fact that the debt collector placed the telephone call to alert the consumer to the pending penalty, giving the consumer an opportunity to avoid a demonstrably negative effect that was not in the debt collector's control and where time was of the essence, is a factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation.

Comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.iv.C provides a counterexample to the first two scenarios in which: On a Monday, a debt collector placed a telephone call to a consumer to offer a “one-time only” discount on the payment of a debt; the debt collector stated that the offer would expire the next day; yet, in fact, the debt collector could have offered the same or a similar discount through the end of the month. The comment explains that because the negative effect on the consumer was in the debt collector's control, the discount offer is not a factor that may rebut the presumption of a violation.

The Bureau has included the rebuttal factor described in comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.iv and the illustrative examples in comments 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.iv.A through .C based on consideration of comments to the proposal. As noted earlier in this section-by-section analysis, industry commenters presented a variety of fact patterns that they believed called for exclusions because the consumer would avoid harm or potentially would benefit from the communication. However, the Bureau declines to include categorical exclusions for these types of telephone calls. Because the rebuttal factors are non-exhaustive, the Bureau need not address each scenario raised by commenters; the question of whether the presumption can be rebutted in a given case ultimately depends on the circumstances. Furthermore, the Bureau has included language and structured the examples in this comment to emphasize the factor's limitations: That evidence must show that the additional telephone call provided the consumer with an opportunity to avoid a demonstrably negative effect; that the negative effect was not in the debt collector's control; and that time was of the essence. The Bureau concludes that cabining the factor in this manner is necessary for clarity and to avoid circumvention.

14(b)(3) Certain Telephone Calls Excluded From the Telephone Call Frequencies

Proposed § 1006.14(b)(3) would have excluded four types of telephone calls from the telephone call frequency limits in proposed § 1006.14(b)(2).[442] Specifically, proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) would have excluded telephone calls made to respond to a request for information from the person whom the debt collector is calling; proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(ii) would have excluded telephone calls made with such person's prior consent given directly to the debt collector; proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(iii) would have excluded telephone calls that do not connect to the dialed number; and proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(iv) would have excluded telephone calls placed to a person described in proposed § 1006.6(d)(1)(ii) through (vi).[443] For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is not finalizing the proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) exclusion for telephone calls made to respond to a request for information from the person whom the debt collector is calling. The Bureau is finalizing the other proposed exclusions as § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) through (iii), with certain revisions discussed below.

Proposed Provision Not Finalized

Proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) would have excluded from the frequency limits telephone calls that a debt collector places to a person to respond to a request for information from that person.[444] Proposed comment 14(b)(3)(i)-1 would have clarified that, once a debt collector responds to a person's request for information, the exception in proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) would not apply to subsequent telephone calls placed by the debt collector to the person, unless the person makes another request for information. Proposed comment 14(b)(3)(i)-2 provided an example of the rule.

Industry commenters requested clarification on a variety of issues related to the proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) exclusion. For example, commenters asked the Bureau to define “request for information”; questioned whether certain scenarios fit within the exception; asked how specific the consumer's request for information must be; and asked how many follow-up telephone call attempts are permitted under the proposed exclusion.[445] A group of consumer advocate commenters recommended that the exclusion not apply if debt collectors placed telephone calls in response to requests for information that consumers submitted through other communication media.

The Bureau is not providing the requested clarifications or making the recommended changes because the Bureau is not finalizing proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(i). After considering the comments, the Bureau recognizes that a telephone call that a debt collector places to a person to respond to a request for information from that person usually also fits under the exclusion for prior consent in proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(ii). Therefore, in an effort to streamline the final rule, the Bureau is not finalizing proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) and instead is expanding the examples in the commentary to the prior consent exclusion, renumbered as final § 1006.14(b)(3)(i), to describe a scenario in which a person, through a request for information, also provides prior consent for a debt collector to place additional telephone calls, and the debt collector then places telephone calls to the Start Printed Page 76818person to respond to a request for information from that person.[446] The Bureau also is specifying in comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.iii that, in the unlikely event that a person's request for information from a debt collector does not meet the requirements of the prior consent exclusion in final § 1006.14(b)(3)(i), the fact that a debt collector placed a telephone call in response to a consumer's request for additional information is a factor that may be used by a debt collector to rebut a presumption of a violation under § 1006.14(b)(2)(ii).[447]

Scope of Exclusions

Industry commenters and the SBA asked the Bureau to exclude additional types of telephone calls from the proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) telephone call frequency limits.[448] For example, industry commenters requested that the Bureau add an exclusion for telephone calls required by, or made to comply with, applicable law, as well as telephone calls related to litigation.[449] Industry commenters also requested exclusions for other types of telephone calls such as telephone calls that would be “beneficial” to the consumer; telephone calls placed to a consumer after a consumer does not follow through with an agreed-upon payment or the consumer's payment is declined; telephone calls placed before a debt collector has established contact with a person; and ringless voicemails. The SBA requested that the Bureau exclude all telephone calls placed by small entity debt collectors from the proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) telephone call frequency limits.

The Bureau declines to add additional exclusions to § 1006.14(b)(3). As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) through (iii), the Bureau is finalizing three of the proposed exclusions. These exclusions cover telephone calls placed with a person's prior consent (§ 1006.14(b)(3)(i)), telephone calls that do not connect to the dialed number (§ 1006.14(b)(3)(ii)), and telephone calls placed to certain professional persons (§ 1006.14(b)(3)(iii)). The Bureau is excluding these categories of telephone calls from the § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) telephone call frequencies because the Bureau concludes that such telephone calls are not placed by debt collectors with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass a person and generally do not have the natural consequence of harassing, oppressing, or abusing any person.[450]

As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(2), the Bureau is finalizing a rebuttable-presumption approach instead of the proposed telephone call frequency limits. The rebuttable-presumption approach inherently acknowledges that there are individual circumstances, beyond the categorical exclusions identified in § 1006.14(b)(3), in which telephone calls exceeding the final § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) frequencies are not placed with the intent to annoy, abuse, or harass, and do not have the natural consequence harassing, oppressing, or abusing any person. The rebuttable-presumption approach will provide debt collectors with many of the flexibilities that they sought from the requested exclusions, while also allowing for consideration of the particular facts and circumstances surrounding a telephone call that exceeds the final § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) frequencies.

Depending on the facts and circumstances, the Bureau's rebuttable-presumption approach to telephone call frequencies may, in fact, provide more flexibility to debt collectors with respect to other scenarios for which commenters requested exclusions, such as telephone calls that would be beneficial to the consumer and telephone calls placed to a consumer after a consumer does not follow through with an agreed upon payment or the consumer's payment is declined. More specifically, as described in comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.iv, another factor that may be used to rebut a presumption of a violation is whether a debt collector placed a telephone call to convey information to the consumer that, as shown through evidence, would provide the consumer with an opportunity to avoid a demonstrably negative effect relating to the collection of the particular debt, where the negative effect was not in the debt collector's control, and where time was of the essence.

Regarding other specific requests for exclusions, industry commenters explained that the proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) telephone call frequency limits are in tension with the Bureau's mortgage servicing rules' live contact and early intervention requirements in Regulation X, 12 CFR part 1024. Another industry commenter identified tension with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Home Equity Conversion Mortgage program regulations, 24 CFR part 206, and State servicing laws that require a servicer to attempt to contact a borrower when a loan is initially called due and payable. Industry commenters also explained that, during litigation, attorneys may be directed to notify the consumer of scheduling matters, to coordinate the date for a hearing or mediation, or to respond to settlement discussions. Industry commenters also stated that court rules may require parties to confer prior to scheduling a hearing. Industry commenters noted that it may be necessary to have multiple, time-sensitive discussions during settlement negotiations, and while the proposed consent exclusion would seem to address this concern, debt collectors may forget to request consent from a consumer to place additional telephone calls.

The Bureau understands that very few legally required communications must be delivered by telephone. However, the Bureau also acknowledges that legally required communications delivered by telephone may facilitate consumer engagement and reach consumers more quickly than if other communication media are used. As discussed in more detail in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(2), the telephone calls that commenters describe could be covered by two factors that a debt collector may use to rebut a presumption of a violation of § 1006.14(b)(1), including: Whether a debt collector placed a telephone call to comply with, or as required by, applicable law, as discussed in comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.i; and whether a debt collector placed a telephone call that was directly related to active litigation involving the collection of a particular debt, as discussed in comment 14(b)(2)(ii)-2.ii.[451]

The Bureau also declines to add an exclusion for telephone calls placed before a debt collector has established contact with a person. FDCPA section 806(5) prohibits a debt collector from causing a telephone to ring or engaging any person in a telephone call Start Printed Page 76819repeatedly or continuously with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass any person at the called number, without regard to whether the debt collector has previously established contact with that person. At the same time, as described in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(2), the Bureau recognizes that debt collectors have a legitimate interest in reaching consumers, and that communicating with consumers is central to debt collectors' ability to recover amounts owed to creditors. The Bureau expects that the flexibility provided by the rebuttable-presumption approach to telephone call frequencies, discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(2), as well as debt collectors' ability to leave limited-content messages, discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(j), will enable debt collectors to reach consumers in a timely manner without introducing additional consumer harms.

The Bureau declines to add an exclusion for ringless voicemails for the reasons discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b).

In response to the SBA's request to exclude small entities from the § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) telephone call frequencies, the Bureau notes that the final rule applies to debt collectors, as that term is used in the FDCPA. Small entities are only excluded from the definition of debt collector to the extent they meet the criteria for one of the specific exclusions from the general definition.[452]

Exclusions Under Rebuttable-Presumption Approach

A few industry commenters asked the Bureau to maintain the proposed § 1006.14(b)(3) exclusions even if the final rule adopted a rebuttable-presumption approach. One commenter explained that maintaining the exclusions would aid courts in determining whether the debt collector has rebutted the presumption of a violation when excess telephone calls fall under one or more of the proposed § 1006.14(b)(3) exclusions.

As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(2), the Bureau is implementing a rebuttable-presumption approach in this final rule and finalizing three of the proposed exclusions. Telephone calls placed by a debt collector that are excluded under § 1006.14(b)(3) do not count toward the telephone call frequencies in § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) that determine whether a debt collector is presumed to comply with or violate § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5). Therefore, telephone calls excluded under § 1006.14(b)(3) will not be used to determine whether a debt collector has rebutted a presumption of a violation under § 1006.14(b)(2)(ii).[453]

14(b)(3)(i)

Proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(ii) would have excluded from the proposed telephone call frequency limits in § 1006.14(b)(2) telephone calls that a debt collector places to a person with the person's prior consent given directly to the debt collector.[454] Under the proposal, a debt collector would have been permitted to place as many telephone calls as necessary before reaching the consumer, but once the debt collector reached the consumer, further telephone calls would not have been covered by the prior consent exclusion. Proposed comment 14(b)(3)(ii)-1 would have referred to the commentary to proposed § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) for guidance concerning a person giving prior consent directly to a debt collector, and proposed comment 14(b)(3)(ii)-2 provided an example of the rule. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is revising the proposed prior consent exclusion, renumbered as § 1006.14(b)(3)(i), to limit the duration of prior consent to no more than seven consecutive days.

One industry commenter recommended that the Bureau limit the number of telephone calls permitted per day and per week under the § 1006.14(b)(3) exclusions, including the prior consent exclusion, while another industry commenter opposed such limits. Some industry commenters explained that it is not necessary to limit telephone calls made under the prior consent exclusion because consumers can withdraw consent at any time. One industry commenter recommended that the proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) telephone call frequency limits reset when a consumer asks a debt collector to call back at another time. Industry commenters also requested clarification about what constitutes prior consent, whether certain scenarios fit within the exclusion, and how to document prior consent. Consumer advocate commenters requested that the Bureau limit the prior consent exclusion to one additional telephone call and expressed concern that debt collectors could otherwise pressure consumers into providing blanket consent for unlimited additional telephone calls over an unspecified period of time.

In general, the Bureau believes that a person can determine when additional telephone calls from, or telephone conversations with, a debt collector would not be harassing, and that a debt collector who has a person's prior consent to place additional telephone calls does not place such calls with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass the person. In the proposal, the prior consent exclusion would have lasted until the debt collector reached the person who consented to the additional telephone calls. Therefore, if the debt collector were unable to reach the person, the person's prior consent to additional telephone calls would have lasted indefinitely. The Bureau recognizes that the debt collector's additional telephone calls, placed indefinitely, may have the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse the person in connection with the collection of a debt.

The Bureau considered limiting the number of telephone calls a debt collector may place under the prior consent exclusion, as suggested by consumer advocate commenters, but concluded that such an approach would be impractical, given that it often takes debt collectors multiple telephone calls to reach a person. Instead, the Bureau is amending proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(ii), renumbered as § 1006.14(b)(3)(i), to limit the duration of prior consent to no more than seven consecutive days, which is the same time period to which the telephone call frequencies in § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) apply. Specifically, final § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) provides that telephone calls placed to a person do not count toward the § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) telephone call frequencies if they are placed with such person's prior consent given directly to the debt collector and within a period no longer than seven consecutive days after receiving the prior consent.[455] In addition, as explained in new comment 14(b)(3)(i)-2, a person's seven-consecutive-day prior consent described in § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) will expire sooner, if any of the following occurs prior to the conclusion of the seven-consecutive-day period: (1) The person consented to the additional telephone calls for a shorter time period and such time period has ended; (2) the person revokes such prior consent; or (3) the debt collector has a Start Printed Page 76820telephone conversation with the person regarding the particular debt.

In response to commenters' requests for clarification about what constitutes prior consent, the Bureau is amending proposed comment 14(b)(3)(ii)-1, renumbered as comment 14(b)(3)(i)-1. The comment continues to refer to § 1006.6(b)(4)(i) and its associated commentary for guidance about giving prior consent directly to a debt collector, but it also clarifies that nothing in § 1006.14(b)(3)(i) regarding prior consent for telephone call frequencies permits a debt collector to communicate, or attempt to communicate, with a consumer as prohibited by §§ 1006.6(b) and 1006.14(h).

Industry commenters raised a variety of hypothetical scenarios and asked whether the consent exclusion would apply to specific fact patterns. The Bureau is revising proposed comment 14(b)(3)(ii)-2, renumbered as comment 14(b)(3)(i)-3.i through .iii, to address how the consent exclusion applies in a number of scenarios raised by commenters. For example, the Bureau is adding an illustrative example in comment 14(b)(3)(i)-3.iii that describes a situation in which a consumer provides prior consent to receive additional telephone calls by sending an email to the debt collector requesting additional information.

Industry commenters also asked about how to document a consumer's prior consent. The Bureau declines to prescribe a specific manner in which debt collectors could document a consumer's prior consent. However, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.100(a), debt collectors must retain records created in the ordinary course of business that evidence compliance with the FDCPA and Regulation F, as well as records created in the ordinary course of business that evidence that the debt collector refrained from conduct prohibited by the FDCPA and the regulation.[456]

14(b)(3)(ii)

Proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(iii) would have excluded from the frequency limits telephone calls that a debt collector places to a person that do not connect to the dialed number (e.g., that result in a busy signal or are placed to an out-of-service number).[457] Proposed comments 14(b)(3)(iii)-1 and -2 provided examples of telephone calls that do and do not connect to the dialed number. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing the exclusion as proposed, but renumbered as § 1006.14(b)(3)(ii) and with certain revisions to the proposed commentary.

Some industry commenters expressed support for the proposed exclusion for telephone calls that do not connect to the dialed number, and no commenters opposed the proposed exclusion. As described above, one industry commenter recommended that the Bureau place limits on the number of telephone calls permitted per day and per week under the § 1006.14(b)(3) exclusions, while another industry commenter opposed such limits. Several industry commenters raised hypothetical questions regarding the operation of the proposed exclusion, such as whether it would cover telephone calls to a full voicemail, dropped telephone calls, telephone calls to a disconnected number, and forwarded telephone calls.

The Bureau determines that a person is unlikely to know about, and is not harassed by, a debt collector's telephone call in response to which the debt collector receives a busy signal or a message indicating that the dialed number is not in service. Similarly, a debt collector who places several telephone calls to a person in response to which the debt collector receives a busy signal or out-of-service notification likely places additional telephone calls to the person in an effort to contact the person and not with the intent to annoy, abuse, or harass the person. For these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing the proposed exclusion for telephone calls that do not connect to the dialed number, without additional limits.

The Bureau is finalizing proposed comment 14(b)(3)(iii)-1, with revisions and renumbered as comment 14(b)(3)(ii)-1, in response to a number of the hypothetical questions raised by commenters regarding the operation of the exclusion. With respect to such questions, the Bureau is addressing only the most likely scenarios, as follows. First, commenters asked about debt collectors placing telephone calls to a disconnected telephone number. As in the proposal, final comment 14(b)(3)(ii)-1 covers such scenarios by explaining that a debt collector's telephone call does not connect to the dialed number if, for example, the debt collector receives a busy signal or an indication that the dialed number is not in service.

Final comment 14(b)(3)(ii)-1 also clarifies a number of situations in which a telephone call connects to the dialed number. First, the comment specifies that a telephone call that is answered, even if it subsequently drops, has connected to the dialed number. The Bureau understands that dropped telephone calls pose unique challenges to debt collectors. Although such calls do not fit under the exclusion for telephone calls not connected to the dialed number, dropped calls may be addressed by other provisions in this final rule. For example, if a debt collector, at the outset of the telephone call, seeks consent to place additional telephone calls to a person if the telephone call disconnects, the telephone call placed by the debt collector following a disconnection would be excluded from the § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) telephone call frequencies pursuant to the prior consent exclusion in final § 1006.14(b)(3)(i). Moreover, if a debt collector does not seek consent, or the telephone call disconnects before a debt collector receives a person's prior consent, a debt collector who places another telephone call to the person shortly after the disconnection may be able to rebut the presumption of a violation under § 1006.14(b)(2)(ii), depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the follow-up telephone call.[458]

Second, commenters presented variations of the scenario where a debt collector places a telephone call to a consumer and then hears nothing. In this scenario, if the telephone call is connected to the dialed number, even if the debt collector hears only silence, the telephone call does not meet the § 1006.14(b)(3)(ii) exclusion criteria. If a debt collector is unsure whether the telephone call connected to the dialed number, the debt collector should treat the telephone call as connected to the dialed number and count the telephone call toward the § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) frequencies.

Lastly, final comment 14(b)(3)(ii)-1 clarifies that a debt collector's telephone Start Printed Page 76821call connects to the dialed number if the telephone call is connected to a voicemail or other recorded message, even if the debt collector is unable to leave a voicemail. In situations where a debt collector is unable to leave a voicemail, the debt collector's telephone call may have caused the consumer's telephone to ring or may otherwise leave evidence of the telephone call. The same is not true of telephone calls that do not connect to the dialed number. The comment also specifies that a telephone call has connected to the dialed number if the telephone call is connected to a voicemail or other recorded message even if the call did not cause the telephone to ring.

Based on feedback, another likely scenario involves a debt collector placing a telephone call that is forwarded to another telephone number. Although not clarified in commentary, the Bureau believes that, in this situation, the exclusion for unconnected telephone calls in final § 1006.14(b)(3)(ii) would not apply because the forwarded telephone call is handled by the dialed number; thus, the telephone call connects to the dialed number.

14(b)(3)(iii)

Proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(iv) would have excluded from the frequency limits telephone calls that a debt collector places to the consumer's attorney, a consumer reporting agency, the creditor, the creditor's attorney, or the debt collector's attorney (i.e., the persons described in proposed and final § 1006.6(d)(1)(ii) through (vi)).[459]

As discussed in the proposal, debt collectors may have non-harassing reasons for calling these persons more often than the § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) telephone call frequencies. For example, during litigation, a debt collector may need to speak frequently with its own attorneys, as well as with the creditor's or the consumer's attorneys. Telephone calls to these persons also are highly unlikely to have the natural consequence of harassing, oppressing, or abusing them for purposes of the FDCPA and final rule.

A consumer advocate and industry commenter supported this proposed exclusion. As described above, one industry commenter recommended that the Bureau place limits on the number of telephone calls permitted per day and per week under the § 1006.14(b)(3) exclusions, while another industry commenter opposed such limits. The Bureau concludes that additional limits are not necessary because these telephone calls are not placed by debt collectors with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass a person, and are highly unlikely to have the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse a person for purposes of the FDCPA and final rule. The Bureau therefore is finalizing proposed § 1006.14(b)(3)(iv) with minor grammatical changes and renumbered as § 1006.14(b)(3)(iii).

14(b)(4) Definition

Proposed § 1006.14(b)(5) would have defined the term particular debt for purposes of proposed § 1006.14(b) to mean each of a consumer's debts in collection, except for student loan debts.[460] With respect to student loan debts, the Bureau proposed the term particular debt to mean all debts that a consumer owes or allegedly owes that were serviced under a single account number at the time the debts were obtained by the debt collector. The Bureau also proposed to clarify how the telephone call frequency limits in proposed § 1006.14(b)(2) would apply when a consumer has multiple debts being collected by the same debt collector at the same time.[461] For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.14(b)(5) with one minor grammatical change and renumbered as § 1006.14(b)(4). The Bureau is also revising the proposed commentary and adding additional examples of the rule.

Per-Debt Versus Per-Person Telephone Call Frequencies

Industry commenters generally supported the proposed per-debt approach to telephone call frequencies. The Bureau received hundreds of comments from the credit and collections industry stating that a per-debt approach is consistent with current debt collection practices and provides flexibility to use account-specific approaches and strategies for different types of debts, different account balances, and debts in different stages of collection. Some industry commenters explained that different clients have different data privacy requirements for the collection of their debts. Industry commenters warned that current system capabilities may not be able to support per-person telephone call frequencies because the systems are not set up to consolidate information about different debts owed by the same consumer, and any system changes would result in extensive reprogramming and training costs. Consumer and consumer advocate commenters argued that debt collectors' systems should be able to consolidate account information for each consumer, and that debt collectors should be able to identify all debts a consumer owes and discuss them at the same time to prevent harassment through excessive telephone calls placed to consumers with multiple debts in collection.

Some industry commenters cautioned that, if the Bureau adopted a per-person approach to telephone call frequencies, debt collectors' calling practices would be too restricted when collecting on multiple debts owed by the same consumer. These industry commenters warned that the market would respond by selling different debts to different debt collectors or staging and prolonging debt collection—both outcomes that, they asserted, would harm consumers.

On the other hand, consumer, consumer advocate, State Attorneys General, State legislator, and local government commenters, among others, generally urged the Bureau to adopt a per-person approach.[462] Some commenters argued that the proposed per-debt approach permits an unreasonably high number of telephone calls and weakens the FDCPA's consumer protections. Citing data from the CFPB Debt Collection Consumer Survey showing that 75 percent of people with one debt in collection have multiple debts in collection,[463] some of these commenters argued that the proposed per-debt approach would allow debt collectors to harass consumers with multiple debts by potentially placing hundreds of telephone calls per week. Some commenters identified the ineffectiveness of repeated telephone calls as another reason to adopt a per-person approach.[464] A State Attorney Start Printed Page 76822General commenter stated that debt collectors in a particular State that limits telephone call frequency to three telephone calls per week per consumer have not been hindered in their ability to collect debt responsibly. A number of commenters also argued that the consumer benefits of the proposed limit of one telephone conversation per week will become illusory with a per-debt approach because consumers with multiple debts in collection will continue to receive telephone calls about other debts from debt collectors.

Some industry commenters believed that consumers would be overwhelmed and confused if, under a per-person approach, debt collectors were forced to discuss multiple debts in a single telephone call with a consumer. Consumer and consumer advocate commenters, among others, rejected this assertion, arguing instead that the proposed per-debt approach would overwhelm consumers financially and emotionally. Specifically, these commenters predicted that the proposed per-debt approach would cause an increased use of mobile telephone minutes and data; result in emotional harms such as chronic stress, shame, and anxiety; and manifest physically in the form of stress to the immune system and elevated blood pressure.

The Bureau understands that, if a consumer has multiple debts in collection, either from one creditor or from multiple creditors, sometimes a single debt collector will attempt to collect some or all of them. Debt collectors in this situation typically make distinct efforts to collect each debt rather than, for example, asking the consumer about all debts during a single telephone call. Although some commenters argued that addressing all debts in one telephone call could be more consumer-protective and decrease telephone call frequency, there are legitimate reasons why debt collectors segregate debts. For example, larger debt collectors often collect multiple debts owed by the same consumer to different creditors, and many creditors require these debt collectors to work each account separately (e.g., a large collection firm may have a dedicated group of collectors exclusively working a particular credit card brand). Creditors impose these requirements, among other reasons, to direct and monitor more closely the activities and legal compliance of debt collectors working their accounts to avoid reputational harm to themselves. A consumer's debts also may enter collection at different times and thus be at different stages of the collections process, such that the different debts may be eligible for different types of settlement offers. The Bureau also recognizes that some consumers may not be able or prepared to discuss more than one debt during a single telephone call or may find it overwhelming, confusing, or simply too time consuming to discuss multiple debts, with different terms and offers, during a single telephone call. Debt collection conversations could become even more complicated if, for example, a consumer wanted to dispute one or some, but not all, of the debts.

As discussed in the proposal, the Bureau considered proposing a per-person approach to the telephone call frequencies, but was concerned that creditors could sidestep a per-person limit by placing debts with debt collectors who collect for only one or a limited number of creditors or by assigning only a single debt to any one debt collector; or that debt collectors could sequence collection of a consumer's debts, thereby prolonging the collections process for some debts. Industry commenters affirmed the likelihood of these outcomes if the Bureau were to adopt a per-person approach. So, while technology that would enable debt collectors to consolidate information about different debts owed by the same consumer, including across different creditor-clients, may exist, a per-person approach may not actually alter the overall telephone call frequency experienced by consumers who have multiple debts in collection and may raise other concerns. For this reason, the Bureau declines to adopt a per-consumer approach and is finalizing the per-debt approach as proposed.

Aggregating Student Loan Debts

As noted, the Bureau proposed the term particular debt to mean, for student loan debts, all debts that a consumer owes or allegedly owes that were serviced under a single account number at the time the debts were obtained by the debt collector.

One industry commenter specifically supported this proposal and also recommended that the Bureau adopt the same rule for all debts that are aggregated by a creditor and serviced under a single account-number before assignment to a debt collector. The Bureau declines to do so because the Bureau understands that debts other than student loan debts are often not serviced under the same account number, and therefore such an approach would provide little consumer benefit.

Other industry commenters generally urged the Bureau to adopt a per-debt rule for all debts, including student loan debts. These commenters argued that all debt types should be treated the same in order to not confuse the consumer and to ensure that the debt collector can adequately provide accurate information to the consumer. They stated that because most debtors have more than one debt in collection, aggregating certain debts but not others will cause confusion, and that during some conversations with a debt collector, a consumer will need to distinguish between multiple debts. The Bureau also declines to adopt this approach. With respect to the collection of multiple student loan debts that were serviced under a single account number at the time the debts were obtained by a debt collector, the debt collector and consumer generally interact as if there were only a single debt. Multiple student loan debts are often serviced under a single account number and billed on a single, combined account statement; have a single total amount due; and require a single payment from the consumer. As a result, many consumers already experience multiple student loan debts as a single debt, and the Bureau concludes that adopting such an approach in the final rule is unlikely to confuse consumers or cause consumers to get inaccurate information.

Some industry commenters also cautioned that the proposal to aggregate student loans could be problematic for a debt collector who is collecting on both Federal and private student loan debt. For example, the commenters noted that current regulations governing loans held by the Department of Education prohibit the sharing of information with any other debt collector database as well as the sharing of information with other debt collectors who may be attempting to contact the borrower. The commenters also explained that it would be unworkable for debt collectors to combine student loans that were originated with different lenders, and have different loan agreements, loan types, origination dates, fees, interest rates, and default dates. The Bureau believes that these commenters may have misunderstood the proposal. Because Federal and private student loans, and loans originated by different lenders, would not be serviced under the same account number at the time the debts were obtained by a debt collector, a debt collector would not be required to treat Start Printed Page 76823those student loan debts as a single debt.

Some commenters stated that the proposed approach was open to abuse by the industry. These commenters were concerned that lenders and servicers would assign different account numbers to student loan debts to prevent aggregation if the student loan debts were to end up in collection later on. One commenter suggested instead that the Bureau measure telephone call frequency by accounts as that term is described for purposes of the student loan servicing market in § 1090.106 of the Defining Larger Participants of Certain Consumer Financial Product and Service Markets regulation (Larger Participant Rule), rather than by particular debt.[465]

The Bureau believes that it is unlikely that its proposed approach will be exploited in the ways these commenters described. Whether a debt collector is required to aggregate student loan debts depends on whether the servicer serviced the student loans under the same account number at the time they were obtained by a debt collector. Servicers have little incentive to incur the cost of replacing their efficient practice of servicing multiple student loan debts under a single account number and billing such debts on a single, combined account statement that has a single total amount due and requires a single payment from the consumer, with the less efficient practice of billing each student loan debt individually, just so a possible future debt collector could place telephone calls in accordance with the § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) telephone call frequencies with respect to each individual student loan debt. In addition, the Bureau declines to use accounts as that term is described in § 1090.106 of the Larger Participant Rule. In the Larger Participant Rule, an individual account is one for which a financial institution is serving a specific borrower for a specific stream of fees from a creditor. As discussed in the preamble to the Larger Participant Rule, if a servicer is paid one fee by a lender for servicing both Federally insured loans and private education loans for a particular student, there would only be one account for the borrower for purposes of determining whether the servicer is considered a larger participant of the student loan servicing market.[466] If implemented as described in the Larger Participant Rule, such an approach could require certain debt collectors to aggregate Federal and private student loan debt information, which, as commenters noted, may be prohibited by Federal law.

Other commenters suggested that, instead of aggregating one type of debt, the Bureau should lower the telephone call frequencies and apply such frequencies on a per-person basis. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.14(b)(2), the Bureau is not finalizing the proposed telephone call frequency limits. Instead, the Bureau is finalizing a rebuttable-presumption approach to telephone call frequencies. The rebuttable-presumption approach contemplates that there may be circumstances in which telephone call frequencies below the limits proposed in § 1006.14(b)(2) may violate § 1006.14(b)(1) and FDCPA section 806(5).[467]

For all these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing the proposed approach to aggregate student loan debts serviced under a single account number at the time the debts were obtained by a debt collector.

Aggregating Medical Debts

Commenters, including consumer advocate commenters, expressed concern about potential excessive telephone call volume with respect to the collection of medical debts specifically. One commenter explained that it is not uncommon for a single medical appointment to result in bills from multiple providers, each of which could end up in collections if the patient is unable to pay. The commenter stated that the per-debt approach to telephone call frequencies would increase the likelihood that a single medical emergency would result in dozens of telephone calls each week, which the Bureau has recognized has a deleterious effect on consumer well-being. Commenters often cited a fact pattern in which a debt collector places 56 telephone calls to an alleged debtor in a week because the debt collector is collecting on eight medical debts stemming from the same medical incident. However, these commenters generally did not advocate for aggregation of medical debt. Instead, they advocated for a per-person approach to telephone call frequencies for all debt.

Some industry commenters asserted that healthcare providers do not typically maintain a rolling total of charges for a general service and instead individually bill each visit, which is further itemized by each provider, facility, and service performed or good provided. The commenters explained that a consumer's medical debt from one creditor may have numerous unique account numbers. Another industry commenter identified the need to maintain compliance with State and Federal medical privacy laws, although the commenter did not identify specific challenges that the proposal or alternatives would create.

According to the CFPB Debt Collection Consumer Survey, medical debt is the most common type of past-due bill or payment for which consumers reported debt collectors contacted them. More than half of consumers who said they were contacted about a debt in collection noted that it was related to medical debt.[468] The Bureau recognizes that consumers do not have control over how medical debt is billed to them and acknowledges that, under current medical debt billing practices, one medical event can result in multiple debts for a consumer.

However, the Bureau also recognizes that there are significant operational challenges with aggregating medical debt. As discussed above, the Bureau has identified concerns with implementing a per-person approach to the § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) telephone call frequencies generally. In addition, in contrast to some student loans, medical debts from one creditor may have numerous unique account numbers. Therefore, the Bureau declines to aggregate medical debts by account number for purposes of the telephone call frequencies in § 1006.14(b)(2)(i). However, as discussed below, the Bureau is committed to monitoring this issue closely after the final rule is implemented and, if necessary, will reconsider how the § 1006.14(b)(2)(i) telephone call frequencies apply to medical debts.

The Bureau also emphasizes that consumers can control when, how, and even if debt collectors can contact them. Section 1006.6(b)(1) prohibits a debt collector from, among other things, communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of any debt at a time or place that the debt collector knows or should know is inconvenient to the consumer. In addition, § 1006.14(h)(1) provides that, in connection with the collection of any debt, a debt collector must not Start Printed Page 76824communicate or attempt to communicate with a person through a medium of communication, including telephone calls, if the person has requested that the debt collector not use that medium to communicate with the person. A consumer may also notify a debt collector in writing that the consumer wants the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer with respect to a debt, and pursuant to § 1006.6(c)(1), a debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate further with the consumer with respect to that debt.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is renumbering § 1006.14(b)(5) as § 1006.14(b)(4) and finalizing it generally as proposed. The Bureau is making one minor grammatical amendment. Specifically, the Bureau is replacing the article “the” preceding the phrase “debt collector” with “a” to account for circumstances in which a debt collector collecting student loan debts is not the same debt collector that obtained such debts from the entity servicing the student loans. Final § 1006.14(b)(4) thus provides that the term particular debt means each of a consumer's debts in collection, except that, in the case of student loan debts, the term means all student loan debts that a consumer owes or allegedly owes that were serviced under a single account number at the time the debts were obtained by a debt collector. The Bureau expects to monitor the market in response to the final rule. If substantial evidence develops that debt collectors who are placing telephone calls in compliance with the per-debt telephone call frequencies are nonetheless harassing consumers, the Bureau could potentially revisit the per-debt approach to telephone call frequencies for all or certain types of debts, such as medical debts, in a future rulemaking.

The Bureau also is revising commentary to proposed § 1006.14(b)(5) in response to requests for clarification from several industry commenters. Some of these commenters asked whether particular types of calls would count toward the proposed telephone calling limits, while others asked how to aggregate or otherwise count such calls. A number of commenters offered suggestions for resolving such hypotheticals while others did not.

In response to commenters' questions, the Bureau is amending proposed comment 14(b)(5)-1, renumbered as comment 14(b)(4)-1, to include additional examples to illustrate the rule. The Bureau also is adding comments 14(b)(4)-1.i and .ii to explain if a debt collector has placed a telephone call for purposes of counting the telephone call frequency under § 1006.14(b)(2)(i)(A) and if a debt collector has engaged in a telephone conversation for purposes of determining whether subsequent telephone calls meet the telephone call frequency under § 1006.14(b)(2)(i)(B).

As provided in comment 14(b)(4)-1.i, if a debt collector places a telephone call to a person and initiates a conversation or leaves a voicemail about one particular debt, the debt collector counts the telephone call as a telephone call in connection with the collection of the particular debt, subject to the exclusions in § 1006.14(b)(3). If a debt collector places a telephone call to a person and initiates a conversation or leaves a voicemail about more than one particular debt, the debt collector counts the telephone call as a telephone call in connection with the collection of each such particular debt, subject to the exclusions in § 1006.14(b)(3). If a debt collector places a telephone call to a person but neither initiates a conversation about a particular debt nor leaves a voicemail that refers to a particular debt, or if the debt collector's telephone call is unanswered, the debt collector counts the telephone call as a telephone call in connection with the collection of at least one particular debt, unless an exclusion in § 1006.14(b)(3) applies.

As provided in comment 14(b)(4)-1.ii, if a debt collector and a person discuss one particular debt during a telephone conversation, the debt collector has engaged in a telephone conversation in connection with the collection of the particular debt, regardless of which party initiated the discussion about the particular debt, subject to the exclusions in § 1006.14(b)(3). If a debt collector and a person discuss more than one particular debt during a telephone conversation, the debt collector has engaged in a telephone conversation in connection with the collection of each such particular debt, regardless of which party initiated the discussion about the particular debts, subject to the exclusions in § 1006.14(b)(3). If no particular debt is discussed during a telephone conversation between a debt collector and a person, the debt collector counts the conversation as a telephone conversation in connection with the collection of at least one particular debt, unless an exclusion in § 1006.14(b)(3) applies.

Final comment 14(b)(4)-2 provides examples of the rules for counting telephone calls under various scenarios.

14(h) Prohibited Communication Media [469]

14(h)(1) In General

The Bureau proposed § 1006.14(h)(1) to prohibit a debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer through a medium of communication if the consumer has requested that the debt collector not use that medium to communicate with the consumer.[470] Pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to write rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors, the Bureau proposed § 1006.14(h)(1) as an interpretation of FDCPA section 806, which prohibits a debt collector from engaging in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is adopting this proposed interpretation and finalizing § 1006.14(h)(1) largely as proposed, while revising it to apply to a “person,” as defined under § 1006.2(k).

Consumer commenters supported the proposal to permit a consumer to limit the communication media used by a debt collector, and consumer advocate, government, and industry commenters generally supported proposed § 1006.14(h)(1) as offering consumers more control over communications received from debt collectors.

Consumer advocates agreed that a debt collector should be required to stop calling specific telephone numbers and sending email, text messages, or other electronic communications upon the consumer's request. Describing proposed § 1006.14(h)(1) as a critical consumer protection, one consumer advocate stated that clarifying this right under the FDCPA will ensure that consumers are not harassed while also allowing them to communicate with debt collectors without requesting that the debt collector stop all communication, thus preventing unnecessary debt collection lawsuits from being filed. Consumer advocates also stated that the Bureau's interpretation is consistent with FDCPA section 806, specifically FDCPA section 806(5) where some courts have found consumers stated a claim for violations of the FDCPA when debt collectors continued to call after being asked to stop. Other consumer advocates Start Printed Page 76825suggested that consumers would benefit greatly from being able to specify contact through various communications media, allowing consumers the ability to stop telephone calls, for example, or other types of communication without stopping all communications.

A group of State Attorneys General agreed that consumers should be able to put any limitations on the use of new technology that they desire, and that, because consumers already have an absolute right to demand that debt collection communications cease, they should have the right to place any lesser limitations on communication, such as limitations on medium or frequency of communication. Additionally, one academic commenter explained that people are sensitive to communication methods and that, even when internet access is reliable, many people may prefer to communicate in person, by telephone, or by letter, including some people with mental illness, who may struggle with electronic communication due to confusion about how to use it or concerns about safety and privacy.

A number of industry commenters generally agreed with proposed § 1006.14(h)(1) on the basis that consumer requests must be respected when it comes to their preferred methods of communication. One industry commenter stated that the proposal would allow a debt collector to communicate with a consumer while also providing adequate consumer safeguards by prohibiting the debt collector from communicating with the consumer through communication media that the consumer requested the debt collector not use. And one trade group commenter supported proposed § 1006.14(h)(1) and agreed it is consistent with FDCPA section 806.

Some industry commenters opposed the proposal in § 1006.14(h)(1) as needlessly restrictive and difficult to implement and stated that it would offer few, if any, countervailing consumer benefits. One industry commenter stated that proposed § 1006.14(h)(1) would limit a debt collector on how best to communicate with consumers who may have a preference of one communication method over another. One trade group commenter suggested that proposed § 1006.14(h)(1) impermissibly expands the scope of the FDCPA.

The Bureau determines that § 1006.14(h)(1) affords various consumer benefits and protections. Since the enactment of the FDCPA, the possible media through which communications generally are conducted has expanded beyond telephone, mail, and in-person conversations to include various mobile and portable technologies that were not contemplated in 1977. For example, with the advent of the mobile telephone, a person may receive a telephone call at any time or place. As the Bureau's Consumer Survey indicated, consumers have varied but strong preferences about the media that debt collectors use to communicate with them.[471] Once a person has requested that a debt collector not use a specific medium of communication to communicate with that person, the Bureau believes that the natural consequence of further communications or attempts to communicate from the debt collector to that person using that same medium likely is harassment, oppression, or abuse of that person. Consistent with this interpretation, the Bureau understands that some debt collectors currently refrain from communicating with a person through a medium that the person has requested the debt collector not use to communicate with that person, including, for example, specific telephone numbers that a person has asked the debt collector not to call.

Accordingly, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14(h)(1) as proposed and revising it to apply to a “person.” Consistent with its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to write rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors, and because the Bureau is adopting § 1006.14(h)(1) as an interpretation of FDCPA section 806, which prohibits a debt collector from engaging in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse “any person” in connection with the collection of a debt, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14(h)(1) to apply to a person, as defined under § 1006.2(k), and not to limit it as proposed to a consumer as defined under § 1006.6(a).

One consumer advocate suggested that the rule should provide that a consumer's demand to stop any one communication medium should stop all communications, unless the consumer affirmatively specifies otherwise, while a group of consumer advocates similarly suggested that one opt-out request (e.g., in response to an email) be applied to all types of communications from the creditor, debt collector, and debt buyer for a given debt. Two industry commenters, on the other hand, requested that the Bureau clarify that a consumer's request to no longer receive communications through one medium is not to be treated as a blanket cease communication request for purposes of § 1006.6(c).

In response to commenters' requests, the Bureau notes that, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(c), FDCPA section 805(c), as implemented by § 1006.6(c), provides that, subject to certain exceptions, if a consumer notifies a debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay a debt or that the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease further communication with the consumer, the debt collector shall not communicate further with the consumer with respect to such debt.[472] Separately, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14(h)(1) as an interpretation of FDCPA section 806, which, in relevant part, prohibits a debt collector from engaging in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress, or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt.[473] Therefore, whereas § 1006.6(c)(1) would prohibit a debt collector, subject to certain exceptions, from all further communications or attempts to communicate with a consumer regarding a particular debt, § 1006.14(h)(1) would prohibit a debt collector from communications or attempts to communicate with a person through a medium of communication that the person has requested the debt collector not use to communicate with the person for all debts. Although these provisions are distinct in their reliance on separate FDCPA authorities (FDCPA sections 805(c) versus 806), in principle they are similar in that they both afford an individual greater control over the communications received from a debt collector. However, final § 1006.14(h)(1) is narrower than final § 1006.6(c)(1) in that, depending on the request by the person, final § 1006.14(h)(1) prohibits a debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate with that person only through a specific communication medium or media and does not constitute a broader communication restriction, whereas final § 1006.6(c)(1) prohibits a debt collector from all further communications or attempts to communicate with a consumer.

One industry commenter requested that the Bureau adopt a safe harbor for up to seven days to allow a debt collector's systems reasonable time to update a consumer request pursuant to proposed § 1006.14(h)(1). For reasons similar to those discussed in the section-by-section analysis of Start Printed Page 76826§ 1006.6(c)(1), this final rule does not specify the period of time afforded a debt collector to update its systems to reflect a person's request under § 1006.14(h)(1). However, depending upon the circumstances, FDCPA section 813(c)'s bona fide error defense to civil liability may apply where, notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error, a debt collector communicates or attempts to communicate with a person through a medium of communication after the person has requested that the debt collector not use that medium but before the debt collector has implemented the person's request.[474]

A group of consumer advocates stated that the Bureau should require all consumer requests to stop a debt collector's communications through a particular medium be noted in the debt collector's file and transferred to the creditor or a subsequent debt collector, and in turn, should provide that future debt collectors would be obligated to honor the consumer's request. Similarly, one local government commenter requested that the Bureau require a debt collector selling or otherwise transferring a debt to another debt collector to share any instructions by the consumer opting out of any medium of communication. One trade group commenter suggested that, if a consumer requested a previous debt collector not use a particular medium, the subsequent debt collector should be granted a safe harbor until the consumer communicates that preference.

The proposal would not have required a debt collector to transfer such information to a creditor or subsequent debt collector, and neither does this final rule.[475] A debt collector thus would not be bound by a request that a person had submitted to a prior debt collector under § 1006.14(h). While this approach may require a person to again request that a medium of communication not be used if an account is transferred from one debt collector to another, the Bureau believes that, as described in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(e), a person who objects to one debt collector's use of a medium of communication might not object to another debt collector's use of that same medium.

A group of consumer advocates requested that the Bureau address how consumers will learn of their right to ask debt collectors not to use certain communication media, suggesting that the Bureau require debt collectors to orally notify consumers in each debt collection call about the right to opt out of receiving telephone calls. Similarly, one local government commenter stated the Bureau should ensure that debt collectors clearly and conspicuously convey to consumers that they have the option to not only opt out of electronic communications, but that they can choose not to receive any telephone calls or telephone calls to a particular number.

The Bureau determines that consumers, without additional disclosures, currently make such requests of debt collectors and will likely continue to do so. In addition, the procedures in § 1006.6(e) require a debt collector to disclose to a consumer the ability to opt out of electronic communications to a particular email address, telephone number, or other electronic-medium address. Accordingly, the Bureau declines to include an additional disclosure requirement related to § 1006.14(h).

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14(h)(1) to provide that, in connection with the collection of any debt, a debt collector must not communicate or attempt to communicate with a person through a medium of communication if the person has requested that the debt collector not use that medium to communicate with the person.

The Bureau also proposed commentary to § 1006.14(h)(1). Proposed comment 14(h)(1)-1 referred to comment 2(d)-1 for examples of communication media. The Bureau received no comments on proposed comment 14(h)(1)-1 and is finalizing it largely as proposed, with certain revisions to include, similar to comment 6(b)(1)-1, that a debt collector may ask follow-up questions regarding preferred communication media to clarify statements by the person.

Proposed comment 14(h)(1)-2 clarified that, within a medium of communication, a consumer may request that a debt collector not use a specific address or telephone number and provided an example. The Bureau received no comments on proposed comment 14(h)(1)-2 and is finalizing it largely as proposed, with certain revisions consistent with § 1006.14(h)(1).

Commenters requested clarification with respect to how a person may invoke the protections that would be afforded under proposed § 1006.14(h)(1). A number of consumer advocates requested that the Bureau clarify that a request pursuant to § 1006.14(h)(1) may be made using any reasonable method, for example orally, whereas two industry commenters asked the Bureau to require that the request must be made in writing. The Bureau declines to adopt a writing requirement. While FDCPA section 805(c), as implemented by § 1006.6(c), requires a consumer to notify a debt collector in writing, that provision applies only if a consumer wishes a debt collector to cease all communication; the Bureau concludes that a similar writing requirement is not necessary or warranted in the context of § 1006.14(h)(1), which provides a person with the opportunity to make a narrower request regarding communication media. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(c)(1), the Bureau declines to extend § 1006.6(c)(1) to oral requests but does clarify that, depending on the facts and circumstances, a consumer's oral request to, for example, “stop calling” would constitute a request that the debt collector not use that medium of communication (e.g., telephone calls) to communicate with the consumer, and consistent with § 1006.14(h)(1), the debt collector would thereafter be prohibited from placing telephone calls to the consumer.[476] The Bureau is adopting new comment 14(h)(1)-3.i to provide an example illustrating this aspect of the rule.

Additionally, the Bureau is adopting new comment 14(h)(1)-3.ii to provide an example illustrating a consumer's request to opt out in response to receipt of either the opt-out procedures described in final § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii) or the opt-out notice in final § 1006.6(e). Assuming that, in response to receipt of either the opt-out notice described in § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii) or the opt-out instructions in § 1006.6(e), a consumer requests to opt out of receiving electronic communications from a debt collector at a particular email address or telephone number, comment 14(h)(1)-3.ii clarifies that the consumer has requested that the debt collector not use that email address or telephone number to electronically communicate with the consumer for any debt. Thereafter, § 1006.14(h)(1) prohibits the debt collector from electronically communicating or attempting to communicate with the consumer through that email address or telephone number.

14(h)(2) Exceptions

The Bureau proposed § 1006.14(h)(2) to provide two exceptions to the general Start Printed Page 76827prohibition in proposed § 1006.14(h)(1). Specifically, proposed § 1006.14(h)(2)(i) provided that, notwithstanding the prohibition in § 1006.14(h)(1), if a consumer opts out in writing of receiving electronic communications from a debt collector, a 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. And proposed § 1006.14(h)(2)(ii) provided that, if a consumer initiates contact with a debt collector using an address or a telephone number that the consumer previously requested the debt collector not use, the debt collector may respond once to that consumer-initiated communication. The Bureau proposed § 1006.14(h)(2) because a single communication from a debt collector of the types described likely would not have the natural consequence of harassing, oppressing, or abusing the consumer within the meaning of FDCPA section 806.[477] One industry commenter supported the two proposed exceptions as helpful to both consumers and debt collectors and described them as designed to facilitate communications that are reasonable under the circumstances. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14(h)(2)(i) and (ii) as proposed, with certain clarifications, and, in response to comments, is adopting an additional exception under § 1006.14(h)(2)(iii) for legally required communication media.

14(h)(2)(i)

Proposed § 1006.14(h)(2)(i) provided that, notwithstanding the prohibition in § 1006.14(h)(1), if a consumer opts out in writing of receiving electronic communications from a debt collector, a 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. One industry commenter explained that it is fairly common for businesses to send a consumer who opts out of email communication a confirmation message to indicate that the consumer's request has been honored; the commenter stated that debt collectors should be able to continue this practice. Other industry commenters requested that the Bureau clarify the reference to a consumer's written opt-out request in proposed § 1006.14(h)(1)(i), given that proposed § 1006.14(h)(1) does not contain a writing requirement. A group of consumer advocates requested that, in order to protect consumers who have opted out of a workplace communication medium, the Bureau clarify that the exception under proposed § 1006.14(h)(2)(i) does not apply if a debt collector knows or should know that the written opt-out request came from a workplace-provided communication channel, such as an employer-provided email address.[478]

In response to these comments, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14(h)(2)(i) as proposed, with certain clarifications and revisions consistent with final § 1006.14(h)(1). The Bureau is striking the reference to “in writing” to clarify that a person's request to opt out of receiving electronic communications from a debt collector need not be in writing.[479] Relatedly, consistent with the permission for a debt collector to reply once, a debt collector may send an electronic confirmation of the person's request to opt out. The Bureau believes that a single electronic communication from a debt collector to confirm a person's request to opt out of receiving electronic communications from a debt collector likely would not have the natural consequence of harassing, oppressing, or abusing the person within the meaning of FDCPA section 806. As finalized, § 1006.14(h)(2)(i) also provides that the electronic confirmation may state that the debt collector will honor the person's request. Accordingly, final § 1006.14(h)(2)(i) provides that, notwithstanding the prohibition in § 1006.14(h)(1), if a person opts out of receiving electronic communications from a debt collector, a debt collector may send an electronic confirmation of the person's request to opt out, provided that the electronic confirmation contains no information other than a statement confirming the person's request and that the debt collector will honor it.

14(h)(2)(ii)

Proposed § 1006.14(h)(2)(ii) provided that, if a consumer initiates contact with a debt collector using an address or a telephone number that the consumer previously requested the debt collector not use, the debt collector may respond once to that consumer-initiated communication. One industry commenter supported this proposed exclusion, explaining that it makes sense to allow a business to respond to a consumer-initiated communication using the same medium used by the consumer, even in circumstances where the consumer had previously chosen to opt out from that communication medium. Two trade group commenters suggested that, if a consumer contacts a debt collector using a medium that the consumer requested the debt collector not use, the consumer should be deemed to have waived the protections under proposed § 1006.14(h)(1). One consumer commenter stated that the proposed exclusion for consumer-initiated communications should be modified to exclude employer-provided communication media, and a group of consumer advocates urged the Bureau to exclude addresses and telephone numbers that a debt collector knows or should know are employer-provided, unless the debt collector confirms with the consumer that it is permissible to use them again.

The Bureau is finalizing § 1006.14(h)(2)(ii) largely as proposed, with certain clarifications in response to comments and revisions consistent with final § 1006.14(h)(1). As suggested by the commenter above, and consistent with new comment 6(b)(1)-2, the Bureau is revising § 1006.14(h)(2)(ii) to permit a debt collector to respond once through the same medium of communication used by the person. The Bureau determines that a single communication from a debt collector in response to a communication initiated by a person using that medium of communication likely would not have the natural consequence of harassing, oppressing, or abusing the person within the meaning of FDCPA section 806. The Bureau concludes this is the case even with respect to employer-provided email addresses because, as explained in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(i), consumers are generally better positioned than debt collectors to determine if third parties have access to a particular email account used by a consumer, whether personal or employer provided.[480] Accordingly, final § 1006.14(h)(2)(ii) provides that, notwithstanding the prohibition in § 1006.14(h)(1), if a person initiates contact with a debt Start Printed Page 76828collector using a medium of communication that the person previously requested the debt collector not use, the debt collector may respond once through the same medium of communication used by the person.

14(h)(2)(iii)

Proposed § 1006.14(h)(2) did not include an exception for legally required communications; however, the Bureau requested comment on whether there are specific laws that require communication with a consumer through a specific medium, and if so, whether additional clarification is needed regarding the delivery of legally required communications through a specific medium of communication required by applicable law if the consumer has requested that the debt collector not use that medium to communicate with the consumer. Two industry commenters explained that court orders as well as certain Federal and State laws, including State laws relating to service of process and contracts, can require communication through a specific medium that could contradict a consumer's request that a debt collector not use that communication medium, including, for example, various notices under State laws that are required to be mailed and in some cases specifically by first-class or certified mail. These commenters requested the Bureau clarify that compliance with a conflicting law and or court order serve as a safe harbor or defense to a claim under the FDCPA. Another industry commenter specifically requested that the Bureau clarify how a debt collector who is also a mortgage servicer could comply with the periodic statement requirement for residential mortgage loans under Regulation Z.

In light of these comments, the Bureau is adopting new § 1006.14(h)(2)(iii), which provides that, notwithstanding the prohibition in § 1006.14(h)(1), if otherwise required by applicable law, a debt collector may communicate or attempt to communicate with a person in connection with the collection of any debt through a medium of communication that the person has requested the debt collector not use to communicate with the person.

The Bureau is also adopting new comment 14(h)(2)-1 to provide an example illustrating the exception adopted under § 1006.14(h)(2)(iii). New comment 14(h)(2)-1 provides that, under § 1006.14(h)(2)(iii), if otherwise required by applicable law, a debt collector may communicate or attempt to communicate with a person in connection with the collection of any debt through a medium of communication that the person has requested the debt collector not use to communicate with the person. For example, assume that a debt collector who is also a mortgage servicer subject to the periodic statement requirement for residential mortgage loans under Regulation Z, 12 CFR 1026.41, is engaging in debt collection communications with a person about the person's residential mortgage loan. The person tells the debt collector to stop mailing letters to the person, and the person has not consented to receive statements electronically in accordance with 12 CFR 1026.41(c). Although the person has requested that the debt collector not use mail to communicate with the person, § 1006.14(h)(2)(iii) permits the debt collector to mail the person periodic statements, because the periodic statements are required by applicable law.

Section 1006.18 False, Deceptive, or Misleading Representations or Means

FDCPA section 807 generally prohibits a debt collector from using any false, deceptive, or misleading representations or means in connection with the collection of any debt and lists 16 non-exhaustive examples of such prohibited conduct.[481] The Bureau proposed § 1006.18 to implement FDCPA section 807.[482] Proposed § 1006.18 generally restated the statute with only minor wording changes for clarity, except for certain organizational changes and interpretations in proposed § 1006.18(e) through (g).

The Bureau proposed to organize § 1006.18 by grouping the 16 non-exhaustive examples of prohibited false or misleading representations in FDCPA section 807 into categories of related conduct. Specifically, the Bureau proposed § 1006.18(a) to implement the general prohibition in FDCPA section 807 against debt collectors using any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt. Proposed § 1006.18(b) restated FDCPA section 807's examples of false, deceptive, or misleading representations.[483] Proposed § 1006.18(c) restated FDCPA section 807's examples of false, deceptive, or misleading collection means.[484] Proposed § 1006.18(d) restated the catch-all prohibition against false representations or deceptive means as described in FDCPA section 807(10). Proposed § 1006.18(e) addressed the disclosures required under FDCPA section 807(11). Finally, proposed § 1006.18(f) addressed the use of assumed names by debt collectors' employees, and proposed § 1006.18(g) addressed misrepresentations of meaningful attorney involvement in debt collection litigation.

A number of individual consumer commenters asked the Bureau to prohibit specific examples of false statements that debt collectors had made to the commenters, such as claims that the consumer would be deported or arrested for failing to pay a debt. While the final rule does not enumerate additional specific false statements, the Bureau notes that § 1006.18's general prohibition on any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt prohibits the false statements described by commenters.

The Bureau also received two overarching comments regarding proposed § 1006.18. One industry commenter asked the Bureau to clarify that a debt collector who makes immaterial false statements orally does not violate § 1006.18.[485] This commenter suggested that the Bureau could develop a warning letter template that consumers could send to a debt collector to clarify any potential misstatements before suing the debt collector for violating the FDCPA's prohibition on false representations. This commenter further suggested that the Bureau provide a list of specific statements that debt collectors could use to inform consumers of the credit reporting status of their debts or of the effect of paying their debts without violating the FDCPA's prohibition on false representations.

The Bureau declines to adopt these suggestions. The FDCPA does not qualify the prohibition on false, deceptive, or misleading representations, and the Bureau did not propose to categorically interpret certain Start Printed Page 76829types or methods of statements as compliant with § 1006.18. A consumer's understanding of a statement generally depends both on the statement itself and on the facts and circumstances surrounding the statement. Similarly, although the Bureau encourages communication between consumers and debt collectors, the Bureau did not propose and does not support conditioning a consumer's access to the judicial system on the consumer sending a warning letter to a debt collector. Finally, the Bureau is not creating safe harbor statements regarding credit reporting. The Bureau concludes that safe harbors for general statements about credit reporting are unnecessary for simple statements about a debt collector's actions, and safe harbors may not be accurate or effective for complicated statements about the effects of paying a debt on a consumer's credit report, credit score, creditworthiness, or likelihood of receiving credit because these effects depend on the facts and circumstances of a particular case.[486]

For these reasons, and pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors and to implement and interpret FDCPA section 807, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.18 largely as proposed, except with respect to the provisions proposed in § 1006.18(d) through (g) as discussed below.

18(d) False Representations or Deceptive Means

FDCPA section 807(10) prohibits debt collectors from using any false representation or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect any debt or to obtain information concerning a consumer. As noted above, proposed § 1006.18(d) restated this catch-all prohibition. The Bureau is finalizing § 1006.18(d) as proposed but, as discussed below, is adding new comment 18(d)-1 to address feedback received regarding the possibility of debt collectors employing deceptive means to collect debts using social media.

The Bureau received a number of comments from government commenters and others expressing concern about the possibility of deception when debt collectors use social media to collect debts. The commenters explained that if, when debt collectors communicate or attempt to communicate with consumers using social media, debt collectors do not clearly indicate their identity and the fact that they are collecting a debt, consumers will not understand that they are communicating with a debt collector and will be vulnerable to deceptive conduct. For example, commenters highlighted concerns with debt collectors submitting a Facebook “friend request” or a LinkedIn “connection” while omitting information about the debt collector's true purpose, in order to engage in collection communications or to obtain information about consumers. A group of State Attorneys General stated that all debt collection communications sent using social media should be accompanied by a notice that the purpose of the communication is to collect a debt.[487] Similarly, Federal government agency staff indicated in its comment that the agency has initiated enforcement actions against debt collectors for using false pretenses to engage consumers in conversation through social media.

The Bureau recognizes that there are unique consumer concerns presented by social media interactions with debt collectors, whether through direct messaging or connections generally. To clarify the application of the final rule to the type of conduct described by commenters, the Bureau is adding comment 18(d)-1. Comment 18(d)-1 restates the general rule of § 1006.18(d) and provides two examples.

First, given the purpose of social media platforms marketed for social or professional networking purposes, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, a consumer who receives a “friend” or “connection” request on such a platform would take away from the request that the requester is interested in a social or professional networking relationship. This consumer takeaway would be false if the request is from a debt collector in connection with the collection of a debt, and this false claim may cause the consumer to accept a request that the consumer otherwise would not have accepted. Such deceptive means of engaging with the consumer violate § 1006.18(d). To address this, comment 18(d)-1.i provides an example of a debt collector who sends a private message to a consumer, in connection with the collection of a debt, requesting to be added as one of the consumer's contacts on a social media platform marketed for social or professional networking purposes. The comment explains that a debt collector makes a false representation or implication if the debt collector does not disclose his or her identity as a debt collector when making a friend or connection request on social media.

Second, the Bureau is including an example to clarify that a debt collector using a social media account for the purpose of engaging with third parties to obtain location information about a consumer must use a profile that accurately identifies the debt collector's individual name. Specifically, comment 18(d)-1.ii provides an example of a debt collector who sends a private communication to a friend or coworker of the consumer on a social media platform for the purpose of obtaining location information. The comment states that, pursuant to § 1006.10(b)(1), the debt collector must identify himself or herself individually by name, and that, pursuant to § 1006.18(d), the debt collector must communicate using a profile that accurately identifies the debt collector's individual name. To clarify that this comment is not intended to prohibit the use of an otherwise permissible assumed name, the comment includes a cross-reference to § 1006.18(f). The comment also states that the debt collector must comply with the other applicable requirements of §§ 1006.6(d)(1), 1006.10, and 1006.22(f)(4) when communicating with third parties.

Because the use of social media by debt collectors is a relatively new practice, the Bureau intends to monitor closely developments in this space. The Bureau also emphasizes that the general prohibition on false, deceptive, or misleading conduct with any person may prohibit social media activities that are not specifically discussed in comment 18(d)-1.

18(e) Disclosures Required

The Bureau proposed § 1006.18(e) to implement FDCPA section 807(11), which requires debt collectors to disclose in their initial communications with consumers that they are attempting to collect a debt and that any information obtained will be used for that purpose, and to disclose in their subsequent communications with consumers that the communication is from a debt collector, except in a formal pleading made in connection with a legal action (the “mini-Miranda disclosure”).[488]

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Proposed comment 18(e)(1)-1 described the circumstances in which debt collectors would be required to provide disclosures in initial communications under proposed § 1008.18(e)(1). Proposed comment 18(e)(1)-1 specified that a debt collector must provide the disclosures in the debt collector's initial communication with the consumer, regardless of whether that initial communication is written or oral, and regardless of whether the debt collector or the consumer initiated the communication. Proposed comment 18(e)(1)-1 also provided an example of the rule regarding required disclosures during initial communications. Proposed comment 18(e)-1 provided general commentary to explain how the disclosure requirements in proposed § 1006.18(e) would interact with the proposal's limited-content message, a message that was not a communication under proposed § 1006.2(d).

For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.18(e) largely as proposed, with minor changes for clarity, and is adopting new § 1006.18(e)(4) regarding translated disclosures.

The Bureau received a few comments on the proposed implementation of the mini-Miranda disclosure requirement. A trade group commenter asked the Bureau to allow debt collectors to modify the mini-Miranda disclosure in the bankruptcy context to remove the reference to the collection of a debt and to the use of any information for debt collection purposes. This commenter stated that such language could be construed as an attempt to collect the debt in violation of the automatic stay provisions of the bankruptcy code. The Bureau declines to adopt a specialized bankruptcy version of the mini-Miranda disclosure. Removing a reference to the collection of a debt and to the use of any information for debt collection purposes would functionally eliminate the mini-Miranda that Congress required debt collectors to provide in FDCPA section 807(11).

One industry commenter asked the Bureau to clarify that caller ID that reveals a debt collector's business name does not constitute the initial communication with a consumer under § 1006.18(e)(1). The Bureau believes that disclosure of a debt collector's business name does not automatically convey information regarding a debt such that a communication, as defined in final § 1006.2(d), has occurred. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.2(j), the final rule defines a message, the limited-content message, that includes a business name for the debt collector that does not indicate that the debt collector is in the debt collection business, but is not a communication. The Bureau does not determine, however, that caller ID can never constitute a communication because caller ID systems might convey information regarding a debt.

This commenter also asked the Bureau to clarify which communications in a series of email or text messages are the “subsequent communications” for purposes of § 1006.18(e)(2), such that a debt collector must again disclose that the communication is from a debt collector. The Bureau currently lacks information showing that the meaning of subsequent communication in FDCPA section 807(11) is a source of serious harm to consumers or burden to debt collectors. Moreover, the Bureau believes that a highly prescriptive approach that attempts to define when the “initial” communication ends and a “subsequent” communication begins for all communication media would be too rigid to accommodate the various forms that communications between debt collectors and consumers might take. On one hand, communications that occur in different media, such as an email message followed by a text message, or communications that have no inherent connection between them, such as two letters, seem to be exactly the kind of “subsequent communications” where a new disclosure would further the purposes of the FDCPA section 807(11) and final § 1006.18(e)(2). On the other hand, some communications, such as a webchat session, may be closer to individual telephone calls where new disclosures throughout the conversation would likely be unnecessary.[489] Other communications exist between these examples and might allow for several reasonable interpretations of when a subsequent communication occurs. Given the diversity of communications and the Bureau's lack of information, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.18(e)(2) as proposed.

Consumer advocates urged the Bureau to require the mini-Miranda disclosure for any voicemail message that deviates from the content required or permitted in a limited-content message, as defined in § 1006.2(j). The Bureau declines to adopt such a requirement. As explained in the section-by-section analysis of final § 1006.2(j), the limited-content message identifies a voicemail message that debt collectors can leave for consumers without conveying information about a debt—and therefore communicating—under the final rule. Final § 1006.2(j) does not attempt to define the exclusive means by which debt collectors would not convey information about a debt. Requiring the mini-Miranda disclosure in every voicemail other than a limited-content message would conflict with the FDCPA's definition of communication by treating all such messages as communications even if they do not convey information regarding a debt to any person.

Several commenters addressed language access requirements. Most of these comments addressed non-English language translations of the validation notice in proposed § 1006.34. These comments included recommendations that the Bureau include a non-English language mini-Miranda disclosure on the validation notice. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.34, the Bureau intends to finalize certain provisions of the proposal in a disclosure-focused final rule addressing the validation notice and will respond to commenters' suggestions regarding accessibility of the mini-Miranda disclosures on the validation notice as part of that rulemaking. However, the Bureau is adopting a requirement that debt collectors make the disclosures required by § 1006.18(e)(1) and (2) in the same language or languages used for the rest of the communication in which the disclosures are conveyed.

Consumers who are unable to communicate in English would benefit from receiving translated versions of the mini-Miranda disclosure. At the same time, however, the Bureau determines that requiring debt collectors to identify such consumers and provide accurate translations in the myriad languages that consumers speak may impose a significant burden on debt collectors. If a debt collector chooses to communicate with a consumer in a non-English language, however, this burden is reduced. Such a debt collector will have already identified the consumer's language preference and exhibited a willingness to communicate in that language. In those circumstances, requiring a debt collector who communicates in a non-English language to provide the disclosures in that language would decrease the risk of deception and help ensure that the disclosures are effective for more consumers. Accordingly, final § 1006.18(e)(4) provides that a debt Start Printed Page 76831collector must make the disclosures required by § 1006.18(e)(1) and (2) in the same language or languages used for the rest of the communication in which the debt collector conveyed the disclosures.

Finally, the Bureau requested comment on whether additional clarification regarding false or misleading representations would be helpful in the decedent debt context, or whether to require any affirmative disclosures when debt collectors communicate in connection with the collection of a debt owed by a deceased consumer. Although the Bureau did not propose specific rules regarding deception in the decedent debt context, the Bureau noted that the FTC expressed concern in its Policy Statement on Decedent Debt that, even absent explicit misrepresentations, a debt collector might violate FDCPA section 807 by communicating with such individuals in a manner that conveys the misleading impression that the individual is personally liable for the deceased consumer's debts, or that the debt collector could seek assets outside of the deceased consumer's estate to satisfy the consumer's debt. The FTC's Policy Statement suggested two possible disclosures that debt collectors generally could use to avoid deceiving individuals who are attempting to resolve the financial affairs of an estate about their liability for the decedent's debts.[490]

Several commenters addressed these issues. Two consumer advocates urged the Bureau to require affirmative disclosures of non-liability. Several industry commenters noted that they affirmatively disclose non-liability and recommended that the Bureau adopt similar disclosures. One trade group commenter supported the creation of safe harbor language that debt collectors could use to avoid deceiving consumers. Another trade group commenter requested certain exceptions from any required disclosure, such as for communications with attorneys.

The Bureau declines to adopt any additional clarifications or affirmative disclosures. The need for required disclosures is diminished by the lack of evidence of deception regarding decedent debt, as noted in the proposal, and by the widespread debt collector practice of disclosing non-liability, as noted by commenters. Moreover, as the FTC explained, the information debt collectors would need to disclose to avoid deception depends on the circumstances. Indeed, even in the abstract, commenters suggested slightly different disclosures, with two commenters supporting the FTC's disclosures and several others offering their own alternative language. Accordingly, the Bureau declines to require in the final rule affirmative disclosures in the decedent debt context.

For the reasons discussed above and pursuant to its authority to implement and interpret FDCPA section 807(11), the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.18(e) largely as proposed, with minor revisions for clarity, and is adopting new § 1006.18(e)(4) regarding translated disclosures. Final § 1006.18(e)(4) provides that a debt collector must make the disclosures required by § 1006.18(e) in the same language or languages used for the rest of the communication in which the disclosures are conveyed. Any translation of the disclosures must be complete and accurate. The Bureau is also adopting new comment 18(e)(4)-1, which provides an illustrative example.

18(f) Assumed Names

Proposed § 1006.18(f) stated that nothing in § 1006.18 prohibits a debt collector's employee from using an assumed name when communicating or attempting to communicate with a person, provided that the employee uses the assumed name consistently and that the employer can readily identify the employee even if the employee is using the assumed name. For the reasons discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.18(f) as proposed, with additional clarifying commentary.

As the Bureau explained in the proposal, debt collectors may instruct or permit their employees to use assumed names when interacting with consumers for a variety of reasons. For example, some employees may have privacy or safety concerns about revealing their true name and employer to a potentially large number of consumers or to particular consumers. As the Bureau explained, from a consumer's perspective, it may not be relevant whether employees use true names or assumed names, provided that the name used does not mislead the consumer about the debt at issue and who is attempting to collect it. The Bureau also noted that the FTC previously issued guidance stating that a debt collector's employee does not violate the FDCPA by using an assumed name if the employee uses the assumed name consistently and the debt collector can readily ascertain the employee's identity.

The Bureau requested comment on the use of assumed names by debt collectors' employees in general, as well as on whether and how employers can readily identify their employees who are using assumed names. One industry commenter supported the proposal because the use of assumed names would help ensure the safety of the commenter's employees. A trade group commenter asked whether proposed § 1006.18(f) would require an assumed name to be linked to a specific individual, or if it could be used in other ways, such as by linking certain assumed names to certain letters mailed to consumers.

Consumer advocates opposed the use of assumed names by debt collectors' employees. These commenters argued that assumed names are inconsistent with FDCPA section 806(6)'s prohibition on the placement of telephone calls without meaningful disclosure of the caller's identity. These commenters further argued that permitting assumed names would enable debt collectors to escape accountability for abusing consumers by concealing their identities. If the Bureau were to allow assumed names, these commenters stated that the Bureau must develop a Federal database of aliases, with one alias per employee and no duplicate aliases within the same company, among other requirements, so that consumers could look up the names of any debt collector's employees.

The Bureau is finalizing § 1006.18(f) as proposed with additional clarifying commentary. As explained in the proposal, debt collectors' employees may use assumed names for many legitimate reasons, including for safety and efficiency, and the Bureau does not conclude that assumed names are inherently deceptive. The use of assumed names is consistent with accountability for debt collectors, as long as the debt collector can connect any assumed name to an employee's real identity. The Bureau's creation of a register of assumed names used by debt collectors' employees is outside the scope of this rule, and the Bureau does not believe that such a requirement is necessary or warranted.

In response to a trade group commenter's question about whether an assumed name must be linked to a specific employee, the Bureau finds that any system of managing assumed names must ensure that the employee uses the assumed name consistently and that the employer can readily identify the employee even if the employee is using the assumed name. The Bureau is Start Printed Page 76832adding comment 18(f)-1 to clarify that one way of doing so is for an employer to require an employee to use the same assumed name when communicating or attempting to communicate with any person, and to prohibit any other employee from using the same assumed name. But the Bureau does not believe a one-to-one link is the only way for an employer to comply with the final rule. The Bureau anticipates, however, that a debt collector who permits many employees to use the same assumed name, e.g., for a specific letter campaign, would be unable to readily identify any employee communicating or attempting to communicate with any person.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.18(f) largely as proposed. Final § 1006.18(f) provides that § 1006.18 does not prohibit a debt collector's employee from using an assumed name when communicating or attempting to communicate with a person, provided that the employee uses the assumed name consistently and that the debt collector can readily identify any employee using an assumed name. New comment 18(f)-1 clarifies that a debt collector may use any method of managing assumed names that enables the debt collector to determine the true identity of any employee using an assumed name. For example, a debt collector may require an employee to use the same assumed name when communicating or attempting to communicate with any person and may prohibit any other employee from using the same assumed name.

Proposed Provision Not Finalized

FDCPA section 807 contains certain provisions designed to protect consumers from false, deceptive, or misleading representations made by, or means employed by, attorneys in debt collection litigation. FDCPA section 807(3) prohibits the false representation or implication that any individual is an attorney or that any communication is from an attorney. In addition, debt collection communications sent under an attorney's name may violate FDCPA section 807(10) if the attorney was not meaningfully involved in the preparation of the communication.[491] The meaningful attorney involvement case law also has been applied in the specific context of debt collection litigation submissions.[492]

Proposed § 1006.18(g) would have provided a safe harbor for attorneys and law firms against claims asserting lack of meaningful attorney involvement in debt collection litigation materials signed by the attorney and submitted to the court, provided that the attorneys met the requirements in proposed § 1006.18(g). Proposed § 1006.18(g) provided that an attorney has been meaningfully involved in the preparation of debt collection litigation submissions if the attorney: (1) Drafts or reviews the pleading, written motion, or other paper; and (2) personally reviews information supporting the submission and determines, to the best of the attorney's knowledge, information, and belief, that, as applicable: The claims, defenses, and other legal contentions are warranted by existing law; the factual contentions have evidentiary support; and the denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on belief or lack of information.

The Bureau received a large number of comments on the proposed meaningful attorney involvement safe harbor from a variety of commenters, almost all of whom opposed the proposal. As discussed below, the Bureau has decided after considering the comments not to finalize the proposed provision regarding meaningful attorney involvement.

While some debt collectors supported proposed § 1006.18(g), other industry commenters—particularly debt collection attorneys and associations thereof—opposed it. These commenters stated that the meaningful attorney involvement case law discussed above is misguided because FDCPA section 807(3) prohibits only the false representation that any communication is from an attorney and, therefore, any communication that is, in fact, from an attorney does not run afoul of that section. These commenters also stated that the FDCPA does not authorize the Bureau to adopt the meaningful attorney involvement standard through rulemaking, because the standard is not found in the FDCPA and is found only in case law.[493] These commenters also stated that the proposed standard would improperly infringe on the practice of law, which, they said, has historically been regulated by the judicial branch and State governments and would undermine the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines. A member of Congress also opposed the proposed meaningful attorney involvement standard on these grounds. Finally, debt collection attorneys stated that the proposed standard would not provide clarity but would instead lead to litigation, which would necessarily result in sharing confidential attorney work product. A few of these commenters stated that they had considered alternatives to the Bureau's proposal and found that none of them were workable.

Consumer advocates stated that the proposed meaningful attorney involvement standard was too lenient and would sanction debt collection attorney practices that these commenters believe to be problematic. The commenters expressed the opinion that the proposed standard was more lenient than some meaningful attorney involvement standards set forth in the Bureau's past enforcement work, State enforcement work, and State laws. Some United States Senators also opposed the proposed meaningful attorney involvement standard for these reasons. Consumer advocates additionally stated that the Bureau did not describe a safe harbor for meaningful attorney involvement in its SBREFA Outline and asserted that the proposed provision therefore harmed the integrity of the Bureau's rulemaking process. These commenters recommended that the Bureau propose a meaningful attorney involvement rule, as opposed to safe harbor, incorporating requirements set forth in Bureau enforcement actions.

Having considered all of the comments on the issue that it received, the Bureau declines to finalize the proposed meaningful attorney involvement safe harbor.[494]

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As the Bureau noted in the proposal, under existing case law, a debt collection communication sent under an attorney's name may violate FDCPA section 807(10) if the attorney was not meaningfully involved in the preparation of the communication.[495] Further, the meaningful attorney involvement case law has been applied in the specific context of debt collection litigation submissions.[496] The Bureau intended its proposed safe harbor to provide greater clarity for all stakeholders as to the standards law firms and attorneys submitting pleadings, written motions, or other papers to courts in debt collection litigation should meet in order to be in compliance with FDCPA section 807(10). As noted above, however, many industry commenters stated that the proposed safe harbor would not provide the intended clarity, and some of these commenters stated that they had considered various alternatives to the proposed safe harbor and found none to be workable in providing clarity either. And, many consumer advocates felt that the standards proposed were too permissive. Because neither the proposal nor alternatives discussed in comments would provide greater clarity as to the meaning of meaningful attorney involvement, the Bureau has decided not to include a safe harbor in the final rule.

The Bureau anticipates that debt collection attorneys will continue to face lawsuits under this legal theory. As the Bureau described in the proposal, the legal theory underlying these lawsuits is that a debt collection attorney makes an implied false representation, in violation of the prohibition in FDCPA section 807 against misleading representations, when the attorney submits litigation materials without there having been meaningful attorney involvement in the preparation of the materials. As a general matter, the Bureau believes that this legal theory has a valid basis in the text of FDCPA section 807; [497] accordingly, the Bureau expects that the law regarding violations of FDCPA section 807 due to lack of meaningful attorney involvement will continue to evolve case-by-case. The Bureau will monitor these developments and continue to assess whether a future rulemaking in this area to provide clarity and decrease consumer harm would be desirable. In that regard, the Bureau disagrees with commenter assertions that the FDCPA does not authorize the Bureau to adopt a meaningful attorney involvement standard—whether consisting of requirements or a safe harbor or both—through rulemaking.[498] The Bureau believes that the FDCPA provides it with ample authority to adopt a meaningful attorney involvement standard by rule.

Section 1006.22 Unfair or Unconscionable Means

FDCPA section 808 prohibits the use of unfair or unconscionable means in debt collection.[499] The Bureau proposed § 1006.22 to implement FDCPA section 808.[500] Specifically, the Bureau proposed § 1006.22(a) to implement FDCPA section 808's general prohibition against unfairness and § 1006.22(b) through (f)(2) to implement section 808's prohibited conduct examples.[501] These provisions largely restated the statute. The Bureau proposed § 1006.22(f)(3) and (4) to prohibit certain conduct with respect to the use of employer-provided email addresses and social media for debt collection communications and § 1006.22(g) to provide a safe harbor for information contained in certain email messages.

The Bureau did not receive feedback about proposed § 1006.22(a), (c)(2) and (3), (d), or (e). The Bureau therefore does not address them in the section-by-section analysis below and is finalizing them as proposed. After considering feedback, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.22(b), (c)(1), (f), and (g) as discussed below. Except as otherwise discussed, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.22 to implement and interpret FDCPA section 808, pursuant to its authority under FDCPA section 814(d) to prescribe rules with respect to the collection of debts by debt collectors.

22(b) Collection of Unauthorized Amounts

The Bureau proposed § 1006.22(b) to implement FDCPA section 808(1). The proposed provision generally mirrored the statute, with minor wording and organizational changes for clarity. Specifically, proposed § 1006.22(b) provided that a debt collector “must not collect any amount unless such amount is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law,” where the term any amount includes “any interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation.” [502]

One industry commenter expressed concern about litigation risk under § 1006.22(b) in the context of medical collections in which debt collectors are sued due to inadvertent billing errors caused by healthcare providers, or due to failing to identify if a bankruptcy is involved. The commenter advocated for giving debt collectors fifteen days to investigate and resolve disputes before they are sued by consumers, protection from liability based on reliance on information provided by a creditor, and a mechanism by which debt collectors report corrections caused by medical providers to the Bureau.

The Bureau declines to adopt this suggestion. As discussed elsewhere in this Notice, the Bureau appreciates that the complexity of medical collections may result in inadvertent errors. But FDCPA section 808(1) does not contain any pre-litigation dispute resolution or correction-reporting procedures, and the Bureau did not propose such procedures in § 1006.22(b). As such, they are outside the scope of this rulemaking. Accordingly, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.22(b) as proposed. The Bureau notes that, as discussed elsewhere in this Notice, under FDCPA section 813(c), debt collectors may have a bona fide error defense to civil liability if they can show that a violation was not intentional and resulted from a bona fide error notwithstanding the maintenance of procedures reasonably adapted to avoid any such error. Depending on the facts and circumstances of a particular case, this defense might apply in certain scenarios.

22(c) Postdated Payment Instruments

22(c)(1)

The Bureau proposed § 1006.22(c)(1) to implement FDCPA section 808(2), which prohibits debt collectors from accepting from any person a check or other payment instrument postdated by more than five days, unless such person is notified in writing of the debt collector's intent to deposit such check or instrument “not more than ten nor Start Printed Page 76834less than three business days prior to such deposit.” Proposed § 1006.22(c)(1) generally mirrored that statute, except that it included the phrase “days (excluding legal public holidays, Saturdays, and Sundays)” in lieu of the statutory phrase “business day.” [503]

In response to proposed § 1006.22(c)(1), one commenter explained that the proposed language would require debt collectors to monitor State holidays, which can vary significantly. The commenter suggested that the language be revised to state “three days (excluding federally recognized legal public holidays, Saturdays and Sundays).”

The Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.22(c)(1) substantially as proposed, with a minor modification in response to this comment. To address potential ambiguity, final § 1006.22(c)(1) contains the phrase “excluding legal public holidays identified in 5 U.S.C. 6103(a), Saturdays, and Sundays.”

22(f) Restrictions on Use of Certain Media

22(f)(1)

FDCPA section 808(7) prohibits a debt collector from communicating with a consumer regarding a debt by postcard. The Bureau proposed § 1006.22(f)(1) to implement FDCPA section 808(7). The proposed provision generally mirrored the statutory language.[504]

A consumer advocate suggested that the Bureau revise proposed § 1006.22(f)(1) to prohibit not only communications, as defined in § 1006.2(d), but also attempts to communicate, as defined in § 1006.2(b). The commenter observed that, if § 1006.22(f)(1) prohibited only communications, and if the Bureau finalized the definition of limited-content messages as proposed in § 1006.2(j) as only attempts to communicate, then § 1006.22(f)(1) would permit debt collectors to send limited-content messages by postcard. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.2(j), the definition of limited-content message in the final rule is limited to voicemail and cannot contain either the consumer's name or the consumer's address. Under this definition, limited-content messages cannot be sent by postcard. The Bureau accordingly is finalizing § 1006.22(f)(1) as proposed.

22(f)(2)

The Bureau proposed § 1006.22(f)(2) to implement FDCPA section 808(8). The proposed provision generally mirrored the statute. Specifically, as proposed, § 1006.22(f)(2) would have prohibited debt collectors from using any language or symbol, other than the debt collector's address, on any envelope when communicating with a consumer by mail, but would have permitted a debt collector to use the debt collector's business name on an envelope if the name did not indicate that the debt collector was in the debt collection business.[505]

In response to proposed § 1006.22(f)(2), a consumer advocate commenter stated that the Bureau should clarify that the provision prohibits email message “from” or “subject” lines that indicate that a communication either is about a debt or is from a debt collector. The Bureau declines to prohibit the inclusion of such information in email message “from” or “subject” lines. Although the Bureau's proposal made a minor change for clarity from the wording of FDCPA section 808(8) by omitting the term “by telegram,” the Bureau did not propose to expand the application of FDCPA section 808(8) beyond mail. In addition, the commentary to final § 1006.42 provides that the inclusion of some such information in an email subject line is a factor in determining whether the debt collector has complied with § 1006.42(a)(1)'s requirement to send required disclosures in a manner that is reasonably expected to provide actual notice.

The Bureau is, however, clarifying how § 1006.22(f)(2) applies in the context of mail. In the Seventh Circuit, the Bureau filed an amicus brief arguing that, while there is no benign language exception in FDCPA section 808(8) that would permit debt collectors to include phrases such as “time sensitive” on mailed envelopes, the FDCPA permits debt collectors to include language or symbols on an envelope that facilitate making use of mail. Specifically, because FDCPA section 808(8) expressly recognizes that a debt collector may “communicat[e] with a consumer by use of the mails,” the FDCPA permits language and symbols that facilitate mailing an envelope.[506] The Seventh Circuit agreed with the Bureau's analysis. In the final rule, the Bureau is adding comment 22(f)(2)-1, which, consistent with the Bureau's amicus brief, clarifies that, for purposes of § 1006.22(f)(2), the phrase “language or symbol” does not include language or symbols that facilitate communications by mail, for example: Postage; language such as “forwarding and address correction requested;” and the United States Postal Service's Intelligent Mail barcode.

22(f)(3)

The Bureau proposed § 1006.22(f)(3) to provide that a debt collector violates FDCPA section 808's general prohibition against unfairness, as proposed to be implemented in § 1006.22(a), by communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer using an email address that the debt collector knows or should know is provided to the consumer by the consumer's employer, unless the debt collector received the consumer's prior direct consent to use that email address or the consumer had sent the debt collector an email from that address. The Bureau proposed § 1006.22(f)(3) on the basis that a debt collector who communicates or attempts to communicate by sending an email message to a consumer's employer-provided email address generally would violate FDCPA section 808 because of the likelihood that the consumer's employer could access and read the message and, in turn, that the consumer could suffer reputational or other harm.[507]

The Bureau received many comments regarding proposed § 1006.22(f)(3) from a wide variety of commenters. Many commenters, including several consumers, consumer advocates, a group of State Attorneys General, Federal government agency staff, a local government agency, a commenter from an academic institution, and a number of industry commenters generally supported proposed § 1006.22(f)(3). Some consumer advocates argued, however, that the Bureau should further restrict, or even prohibit, debt collectors' use of employer-provided email addresses.

By contrast, many industry commenters questioned the Bureau's basis for proposed § 1006.22(f)(3), raising concerns that it was overly restrictive in light of the privacy features of email and citing the potential cost of compliance compared to lack of evidence of consumer harm. Some such commenters argued that the Bureau should not include the provision in the final rule. For example, some industry Start Printed Page 76835commenters argued that employees are well aware that their employer has the right to view emails sent to email addresses within the employer-provided email domain and thus are aware of the risks of being contacted at such addresses. Several industry commenters believed that debt collectors should be permitted to contact consumers at employer-provided email addresses as long as consumers could opt out. Another argued that debt collectors should be permitted to communicate or attempt to communicate using an email address that is not obviously employer provided unless a consumer expressly states a desire not to be contacted at work.[508]

After considering this feedback, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.22(f)(3) with revisions, as discussed below, because the Bureau concludes that the provision provides important protections for consumers. As discussed in the proposal, employers often have the right to access, and may monitor, email accounts they provide to employees. And the risks of harm to consumers from debt collectors sending messages to an employer-provided email address are particularly high because of the risk of adverse employment consequences, which can cause economic harm and exacerbate a consumer's financial distress, including by making it more difficult to satisfy outstanding financial obligations. The legislative history of the FDCPA indicates an emphasis on preventing such risks to a consumer's employment from debt collection communications. Final § 1006.22(f)(3) provides protections specific to such harms consumers may face with the use of employer-provided email addresses.

Knows-or-Should-Know Standard

Section 1006.22(f)(3) proposed, in relevant part, to prohibit debt collectors from communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer using an email address that the debt collector knows or should know is provided to the consumer by the consumer's employer. Proposed comment 22(f)(3)-3 described the know or should know standard and set forth three scenarios in which a debt collector would have met it. Proposed comment 22(f)(3)-3 also stated that, absent contrary information, a debt collector would not know (and should not know) that an email address was employer provided if the domain name in the email address was one commonly associated with a provider of personal email addresses (e.g., gmail.com).[509]

Notwithstanding the examples in proposed comment 22(f)(3)-3, a number of commenters, including many industry and some consumer advocate commenters, expressed concern about the “should know” standard, stating that, in many cases, debt collectors may be unable to easily or reliably distinguish between employer-provided and personal email addresses. A number of industry commenters, for example, stated that whether an “.edu” email address belongs to a student or employee of an educational institution can be ambiguous. Similarly, several consumer advocate commenters questioned whether debt collectors would be able to rely on domain name alone to distinguish personal from employer-provided email addresses because some consumers use free or low-cost email accounts in connection with their employment. Industry commenters explained that there currently are no systems to scrub email addresses to determine whether they are employer provided and that developing and maintaining such systems would cost the industry millions of dollars and entail privacy risks for consumers. Many industry commenters stated that the lack of clarity regarding “should know” would impose significant costs on debt collectors and increase litigation risk, and some stated that it would discourage debt collectors from using email altogether, even if email might potentially benefit some consumers.

Industry commenters suggested a number of revisions to proposed § 1006.22(f)(3) to address their concerns regarding the knowledge standard. A variety of industry commenters suggested that the Bureau should include a presumption that email domain names commonly associated with personal accounts (e.g., gmail, hotmail, yahoo, msn, and other similar products) are personal email addresses, unless the debt collector knows or has reason to know that such email addresses are employer provided. Other industry commenters requested that the Bureau limit § 1006.22(f)(3) to situations in which the debt collector knows an email address is employer provided. Other industry commenters asked the Bureau to clarify that debt collectors are not required to impute knowledge that one consumer's email address is employer provided to other consumers who are employees of the same employer. On the other hand, a consumer advocate commenter and a law firm commenter argued that finalizing § 1006.22(f)(3) to include an actual knowledge standard would make it too difficult for consumers to establish a violation.

The Bureau appreciates that, under a “should know” standard, debt collectors may have difficulty determining, for example, whether certain email addresses are employer provided and that such uncertainty may cause some debt collectors to refrain from communicating through any email address, even if email might be beneficial and preferable for at least some consumers. As discussed elsewhere in part V, the final rule clarifies the FDCPA's application to electronic communication media and such clarity is intended, in part, to permit those consumers and debt collectors who prefer to use such newer communication technologies to do so while also establishing important consumer protections.

The Bureau also understands concerns raised by consumer advocate commenters about an actual knowledge standard. However, in light of the difficulties identified regarding a “should know” standard, and because the Bureau finds that consumers will benefit from a clear prohibition in the final rule against the use of employer-provided email addresses, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.22(f)(3) to generally prohibit debt collectors from communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer by sending an email to an email address that the debt collector knows is provided to the consumer by the consumer's employer.[510] The standard is consumer-specific; that is, a debt collector does not necessarily know that a consumer's email address is employer provided merely because the domain name for that email address is the same as the domain name for an email address that a different consumer has told the debt collector is employer provided.

Consent and Prior Use Exceptions

Proposed § 1006.22(f)(3) provided that a debt collector could communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer using an employer-provided email address if the debt collector had received directly from the consumer either prior consent to use that email address or an email from that email address. Proposed comments 22(f)(3)-1 and -2 clarified these exceptions.Start Printed Page 76836

Several industry commenters supported the consent provision as proposed, but many requested that debt collectors be able to rely on evidence of consent provided to the creditor, such as an employer-provided email address included in a loan application or an email recently used by a creditor.[511] One industry commenter asked that debt collectors be able to rely on a documented specific request by a consumer to be contacted at an employer-provided email address. Other industry commenters asked the Bureau to clarify how the rule applies if a consumer withdraws consent for the debt collector to use an employer-provided email address after the debt collector has sent an email to that address. Two industry commenters recommended that consumers be required to provide debt collectors an alternative email address if they withdraw their consent to be contacted at their employer-provided address.

Consumer advocate commenters generally argued that the Bureau should limit how a debt collector could obtain a consumer's prior consent. A number of consumer advocate commenters requested that consent be provided in conformity with the requirements of the E-SIGN Act. One consumer advocate commenter requested that the Bureau prohibit debt collectors from soliciting employer-provided email addresses. Another consumer advocate commenter requested that the Bureau narrow the scope of the consent exception by only allowing, in some circumstances, the debt collector to respond by sending a single follow-up email to confirm the consumer's consent.

Regarding industry commenters' suggestion that prior consent cover email addresses the consumer provided to a creditor, the Bureau finds that, as discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4), consumers might not appreciate the risks of sharing an email address with a creditor at the time of initiating an account relationship, when the prospect of defaulting on a financial obligation is remote. The Bureau also declines to require consumers who are withdrawing their prior consent for debt collectors to use an employer-provided email address to provide an alternative email address to debt collectors. Such a requirement does not have a basis in the FDPCA and is not necessary or warranted for debt collectors to avoid a third-party disclosure violation. As to the request for clarification about what to do if a consumer withdraws consent to communicate using an employer-provided address, the Bureau notes that § 1006.14(h) prohibits debt collectors from using that email address again.[512]

The Bureau finds that it is not necessary to limit the prior consent exception in the ways that consumer advocates suggested in light of other revisions to the final rule addressing consent for and prior use of particular email addresses. As discussed in the section-by-section analysis of § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) and (iii), the procedures described in those sections are tailored to minimize the risk of third-party disclosures, including disclosures to employers. Specifically, § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) outlines procedures based on whether the consumer used the email address to communicate with the debt collector or directly consented to the debt collector's use of the address. These procedures permit the consumer to assess the risk of a third-party disclosure, including to an employer, before deciding whether to communicate by email. Section 1006.6(d)(4)(iii) outlines procedures based on communication by a prior debt collector and limits a debt collector to using email addresses that, among other things, were obtained by a prior debt collector under § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) or (ii).[513]

The Bureau also declines to adopt consumer advocates' recommendation to prohibit debt collectors from soliciting employer-provided email addresses. While the Bureau appreciates the risk that a debt collector could engage in abusive, deceptive, or unfair conduct to obtain a consumer's consent to use an employer-provided email address, a per se prohibition on soliciting a consumer's permission would be overbroad because debt collectors need not engage in such conduct to obtain consumer consent. And, to the extent a debt collector does so, the debt collector will have violated one or more of FDCPA sections 806 through 808 and §§ 1006.14(a), 1006.18(a), and 1006.22(a). For these reasons, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.22(f)(3) to provide, as proposed, prior consent and consumer use exceptions to the general prohibition. For ease of compliance, however, the Bureau is finalizing the exceptions by replacing them with a cross-reference to § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) and (iii), which, as described above, are generally consistent with the proposed exceptions.

For the reasons discussed above, the Bureau is finalizing § 1006.22(f)(3) to prohibit a debt collector from communicating or attempting to communicate with a consumer by sending an email to an email address that the debt collector knows is provided to the consumer by the consumer's employer, unless the email address is one described in § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) or (iii).[514] The Bureau is adopting new comment 22(f)(3)-1 to further clarify that a debt collector who sends an email to an email address described in § 1006.6(d)(4)(i) or (iii) does not violate the prohibition in § 1006.22(f)(3), even if the debt collector knows the email address is employer provided. New comment 22(f)(3)-1 also clarifies that a debt collector who sends an email to an email address described in § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii) complies with § 1006.22(f)(3) because a debt collector who follows § 1006.6(d)(4)(ii) does not, by definition, send an email to an email address that the debt collector knows is provided by a consumer's employer. In effect, therefore, comment 22(f)(3)-1 clarifies that a debt collector who sends an email to an email address described in § 1006.6(d)(4) does not violate § 1006.22(f)(3).

22(f)(4)

The FDCPA does not specifically address newer technologies, including social media. The Bureau proposed to provide that certain communications and communication attempts, when made using social media, represent unfair or unconscionable means to collect a debt in violation of FDCPA section 808, as proposed to be implemented in § 1006.22(a).[515] Specifically, proposed § 1006.22(f)(4) provided that a debt collector must not Start Printed Page 76837communicate or attempt to communicate with a consumer in connection with the collection of a debt through a social media platform that is viewable by a person other than the persons described in § 1006.6(d)(1)(i) through (vi) (i.e., the consumer; the consumer's attorney; a consumer reporting agency, if otherwise permitted by law; the creditor; the creditor's attorney; or the debt collector's attorney).[516] Proposed comment 22(f)(4)-1 provided certain clarifications regarding the proposed prohibition. As discussed below, the Bureau is finalizing proposed § 1006.22(f)(4) with revisions in response to feedback and for clarity.

Public-Facing Social Media Communications and Attempts to Communicate

No commenters objected to the general concept of restricting publicly viewable social media communications as an unfair means of debt collection. Several industry commenters supported the proposed concept, as did a Federal government commenter, consumer advocate commenters, and individual consumer commenters.

Some commenters were uncertain whether the proposal would have prohibited communications or attempts to communicate that might be viewable by social media platform providers, given that such providers were persons other than those specified in § 1006.6(d)(1)(i) through (vi). The Bureau clarifies in the final rule that the prohibition applies to communications or attempts to communicate that can be viewed by members of the general public or a person's social media contacts,[517] not to messages that could be accessible in some form by a social media platform provider but that are otherwise not viewable by the general public or a person's social media contacts.[518]