One of the nation's largest consumer debt buyers will pay a $2.5 million civil fine to settle deception allegations.
The Federal Trade Commission said Monday that Michigan-based Asset Acceptance agreed to the penalty and to changes in the way it collects debt. The company buys unpaid debts from credit card companies, utilities, health clubs and others.
The FTC alleged that Asset tried to collect debt in some cases that wasn't even owed.
In other cases, the FTC says the company told consumers they owed a debt that may have been too old to collect because it was past the statute of limitations. Making a payment could then re-start the clock on the debt and allow collectors to take legal action.
Because of the volume of accounts Asset handles, in the tens of millions, the FTC said it was hard to estimate how many consumers were impacted by the practices the agency said the company used.
"Most consumers do not know their legal rights with respect to collection of old debts past the statute of limitations," said David Vladeck, director of the agency's bureau of consumer protection. "This FTC settlement signals that, even with old debt, the prohibitions against deceptive and unfair collection methods apply."
As part of the proposed settlement, Asset Acceptance, based in Warren, Mich., will have to tell consumers that their debt may be too old to be legally enforceable and that it won't sue to collect on that debt.
The company also will be barred from noting debt on a consumer's credit report without informing the consumer about the negative report.
Parent-company Asset Acceptance Capital Corp. said the agreement ends an FTC investigation begun in February 2006 "without any admission by Asset Acceptance of the FTC's claims." It added that the company "does not expect the operational requirements of the consent decree to have a material adverse effect on its business."