For the second time in less than a year, the Assembly will consider legislation aimed at combating harassing consumer debt collection practices in New Jersey.
Proponents say the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act would help eliminate harassing, intimidating and abusive debt collection practices while providing consumers a way to dispute and validate debt information to ensure its accuracy.
The legislation, scheduled for a vote Monday, would supplement existing federal protections and limit collectors' ability to contact a debtor at work _ except under certain circumstances _ or at "any time and place" known to be inconvenient.
"We're doing nothing here to relieve a consumer of a rightful debt, but this is a fairness bill that's needed more than ever to ensure consumers aren't harassed by unscrupulous debt collectors," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Paulsboro. He sponsored the measure along with Assemblymen Matthew W. Milam, D-Cape May Court House, Wayne P. DeAngelo, D-Hamilton and Paul Moriarty, D-Turnersville.
State consumer affairs officials receive numerous complaints about debt collection tactics each year, and that number has been on the upswing over the past year as more people struggle with their finances. And a recent survey by the National Association of Attorneys General showed debt collection, auto sales and home repairs leading a national list of consumer complaints for the second straight year.
"Just because someone is in debt does not mean they forfeit their rights to be treated fairly,'' Moriarty said. ``Debt
collectors may have a responsibility to get consumers to make good on what they owe, but they also have an obligation to treat consumers with respect and within the law.''
*The bill would prohibit, with limited exceptions, a debt collector from communicating with a debtor: earlier than 8 a.m. and later than 9 p.m., at the debtor's place of employment, although the collector may send a single letter or make one phone call per month to a debtor's place of employment if the debt collector hasn't been able to contact the debtor at home.
*If the debt collector knows the debtor is represented by an attorney and can readily ascertain that attorney's name and address.
Violators would face a fine of up to $10,000 for a first offense and up to $20,000 for any subsequent offense. And a violation may result in cease and desist orders issued by the state Attorney General's office and the awarding of treble damages, attorneys' fees and legal costs to the injured party.
Assembly members overwhelmingly approved the measure last July, but it died when the state Senate failed to act on it before the last legislative session ended in January. If it's passed again, the bill would go back to the senate for its consideration.