Regulators Probing Banks’ Debt Collection Practices

Regulators Probing Banks’ Debt Collection Practices
By: Danielle Douglas

Federal regulators are widening an investigation into whether the nation’s biggest banks used flawed documents and incomplete records to collect on delinquent credit card debts, according to four people familiar with the probe.

The scope of the inquiry is unclear, but those familiar with it say the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is expanding a probe that began in 2011 with allegations that JPMorgan Chase was using error-filled documents in lawsuits against debtors.

The regulatory agency is examining the process several banks use to verify consumers’ outstanding debt before taking legal action, according to several people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak about an ongoing investigation. An OCC spokesman declined to comment.

The concerns about credit card debt collection echo the wave of shoddy foreclosures after the housing market collapsed. In those cases, as homeowners defaulted on their loans in droves, mortgage servicers were accused of falsifying records and “robo-signing” hundreds of documents without reviewing them.

Similarly, banks have filed hundreds of thousands of lawsuits against delinquent credit card holders in the wake of the financial crisis. As millions of Americans fell behind on payments, the charge-off rate for credit cards soared to $85 billion by the end of 2009, according to the credit card comparison Web site Cardhub.com.

Consumer lawyers began noting a number of collection cases built on shoddy records. Authorities in California, for example, say JPMorgan flooded the courts with lawsuits against credit card holders based on flimsy evidence that cardholders were in default, according to a lawsuit filed this month by the state’s attorney general. The complaint says the bank signed off on hundreds of legal documents “without any knowledge of the facts alleged in the document and without regard to the truth and accuracy of those facts.”

Regulators began examining the debt collection practices of JPMorgan in 2011 after a former bank employee, Linda Almonte, said nearly 23,000 delinquent accounts were riddled with inaccuracies, according to people with knowledge of the probe. Almonte, who sued JPMorgan for wrongful termination, claimed she was fired after warning her supervisors about the records.

Officials at JPMorgan declined to comment on the whistleblower lawsuit or the OCC investigation.

The Almonte case, which was settled out of court, raised concerns among regulators that the same sorts of haphazard practices that plagued the foreclosure process might have crept into debt collection.

The OCC’s investigation reflects the agency’s increasing focus on fair lending and consumer protection coming out of the financial crisis. The agency, for example, teamed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in July to bring a $210 million action against Capital One for deceiving millions of customers into buying costly and unneeded credit card services.

“The OCC’s interest in [consumer protection issues is] a part of that overall focus in Washington,” said Christopher J. Willis, a partner at the law firm Ballard Spahr.

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