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Calls To Debtors Increase As COVID Funds Dwindle

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Afni's call center and company headquarters are based in two Bloomington locations.

Call center workers at Bloomington-based Afni, one of the nation’s largest debt collection firms, are making more calls to people as the financial reprieve for many who fell behind on their bills during the pandemic slowly comes to an end.

Initially, “a combination of federal stimulus money, lower gas prices, and reduced spending did allow some to pay down debt. Today, people are finding it more challenging,” an Afni spokesman said in an email to WGLT.

“The rise in consumer spending and the price of goods and services appears to have offset the improvement in the employment rate,” according to Afni.

Only about 2% of Afni’s 9,000 workers are employed in the Receivables Management division. A majority of staff at Afni’s facilities in four states and the Philippines provide customer service, sales solutions and subrogation to clients in several industries. The call center and company headquarters are based at two Bloomington locations.

Afni views its role as a way of helping consumers clear up old debt.

“We work closely with them to create a path forward, helping people get out of debt and improve their credit profile,” the company said.

Complaints against Afni

An extensive record of complaints against Afni suggests many consumers are unappreciative of the company’s approach to settling old accounts.

Scores of complaints have been filed with the Better Business Bureau, and a settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) last year cost the company $500,000.

In November 2020, the CFPB and Afni resolved a complaint accusing the company of furnishing information to several credit reporting agencies that it “knew or had reason to believe” was inaccurate. Afni also failed to investigate disputes consumers had with creditors in a timely manner and report the results of those investigations, according to the ruling.

In addition to the fine, Afni agreed to update its policies to ensure accurate information goes to credit reporting agencies.

Afni’s clients include telecommunications giants AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast.

Sometimes, debt-collection agencies are the target of criticism that should more accurately be directed toward the original provider of services, said Kevin Baich, president of the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals.

“A lot of complaints are pigeon-holed against the debt-collection agency, but the complaint may actually be with the original provider. They could be mad at them because they never got the bill because they moved, or they were dissatisfied with the service or a multitude of other factors,” said Baich, who leads the trade group representing 1,500 agencies.

The estimated 7,000 debt collection firms in the U.S. are required to follow stringent federal and state rules for contacting people in an attempt to collect money on behalf of a creditor.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives consumers the right to dispute false information on their credit report. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act outlines what a debt collector can and can’t do to collect a past due bill. Violations of either law are resolved in federal court.

In the past 15 years, Afni has been named in about 800 federal lawsuits, including a dozen in Illinois, according to the federal court records database.

One lawsuit filed in New York against Afni over an alleged debt to State Farm Bank was settled in July after the judge noted the consumer “never heard of State Farm Bank, never did any business with it, and never owed it any money. Nor has plaintiff ever heard of defendant collection company.”

Chicago attorney Taylor Kosla with Agruss Law Firm said the firm has handled dozens of lawsuits against Afni since 2015 dealing with alleged violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Afni’s mistakes are not among the most serious infractions, said Kosla.

"To be frank, it is difficult to comply with the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act."
Chicago attorney Taylor Kosla

“They’re not like a lot of the ones we see out of New York that make threats to garnish wages, to sue and call family members,” said Kosla. “With Afni we see more, I would say, mild violations, with harassing phone calls, and collecting debts that aren’t owed.”

Among the accusations against Afni are violations of rules against calling people after the person requested no phone contact and inappropriately sharing information about a debt. Lawsuits often are resolved with a confidential settlement agreement, and in some cases Afni has prevailed where the complainant failed to make their case.

One mistake by a caller, such as a failure to disclosure the name of the collector, can lead to a violation of “a pretty strict statute,” said the Chicago attorney.

“To be frank, it is difficult to comply with the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act,” said Kosla.

Afni did not respond to WGLT questions about its efforts to counter the negative image of Afni portrayed in consumer complaints.

Illinois ranks 9th in the U.S. for the highest number of complaints lodged by consumers against bill collectors, with 1,821 complaints filed from July 2020 to July 2021, according to CPFB data. Texas holds the top position with about 8,000 complaints during the same period.

The federal regulations offer consumers the chance to challenge a debt collector without the burden of paying legal fees. Firms that violate the law must pay a fine of up to $1,000 and are responsible for consumer’s legal fees, a provision that has created a new niche for many law firms.

For some people, the first indication of a problem comes after a loan application reflects a lower-than-expected credit score. A small bill for something as simple as a failure to return a cable box can blemish a credit report, said Kosla.

“I always tell my clients, if you have debt, don’t ignore it and regularly monitor your credit report because that’s usually where you find early signs of identity theft or maybe a bill you thought was paid that somehow slipped through the cracks.”

All consumers benefit when old debts are collected, said Baich. When companies receive payments through a collection agency, “we save the average American consumer $706 a year because if not for our efforts, the costs of goods and services would have to increase that amount.”

Ninety-three percent of the association’s members have fewer than 99 employees, said Baich, and collect debt on behalf of small local businesses who cannot afford to write-off all unpaid bills.

The idea that people who leave debt of the books have just walked away from their obligation is an inaccurate assumption, said Baich, who pointed to divorce, illness and other life circumstances that force people to make choices about what they can afford to pay.

“They are going to keep the lights on and keep the rent paid, or their car (payment) paid. And some other debt that may not be critical to their continued well-being at the moment, they’re going to put off for a period of time until their circumstances turn around. You never know what tomorrow may bring in your life. That’s why we try to be as compassionate as we can,” said Baich.

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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