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Make bill collectors pay up, proposals say

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Are bill collectors banging your door down? Do late-night phone calls from creditors keep the baby awake?

Then there's at least one legislative initiative that may appeal to you.

In both the House and Senate, bills are moving forward that would regulate consumer collection agencies for the first time since 1981. They would require all agencies to get a $725 annual state license to operate, and if they were found to be doing something illegal, they would lose the license _ and their ability to do business.

The measures (Senate Bill 114 and House Bill 557) also would prohibit phone calls from bill collectors between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m., unless debtors had given their permission for off-hours calls.

Currently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates the collection industry, and consumers who think they have been wronged can complain to the FTC or sue the bill collector.

But legislators who support the registration bills say that system is cumbersome and frustrating for consumers.

"That scares me absolutely to death," said state Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville, when told that the federal government now regulates the industry. "I've tried to call the FTC myself, and I can't get through."

Representatives of the consumer collection industry vehemently oppose the proposals, saying the number of complaints that have been registered is tiny compared with the volume of business they do. Licensing would be expensive and unnecessary, they told members of the Senate Professional Regulation Committee on Monday.

Last year, 383 consumers wrote to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to complain or inquire about collection agencies. According to the department, however, written complaints account for only about one-fifth of the complaints they receive. Most people use the telephone.

But representatives of the industry said Florida's 339 collection agencies handle more than 12-million accounts a year, making the complaints minuscule, particularly considering that the recession has made their business explode.

"That's one complaint per agency," said Jim Talley, lobbyist for the Merchants Association of Florida.

"We're not an unreputable business," said Don Hughes, who owns a collection agency in Marianna. "We put money back into your economy."

But state Sen. Fred Dudley, R-Fort Myers, said he suspects that only a few of the consumers who have had a problem with collection agencies actually complain.

"Those are only the complaints we know about," he said. "I think that's 383 too many."

State Sen. Helen Gordon Davis, D-Tampa, spoke against the bill, saying she doesn't think the state should try to regulate any more industries until it can do a more competent job with the ones it already regulates.

But the bill passed 5-2. It still must be heard by finance and tax committees in both chambers before it makes it to the full House and Senate.