Lawmakers, consumer groups and the debt collection industry agree on at least one thing: The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the key law governing how collectors behave, needs updating.
Congress enacted the law in 1977, long before voice mail, cell phones and e-mail became a part of daily life.
It has been updated but not sufficiently to account for the use of evolving communication technologies, according to several industry experts.
Collectors perceive as detrimental what little clarity exists under the law.
Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and an order released by the Federal Communications Commission in 2008, debt collectors must get prior permission to contact consumers on their mobile devices.
The industry wants full access to these newer technologies without having to get consumers' consent beforehand.
The consent requirement hampers collection efforts because many consumers do not have landlines, collectors say.
"As an industry we are disappointed at the inability to call consumers on the only phone they have. It only means more lawsuits if we can't contact them," said Robert Markoff, the president of the National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys and a partner at Markoff & Krasny in Chicago.
Twenty-one percent of the U.S. population lacks a landline, and this percentage is growing, said Valerie Hayes, the vice president of legal compliance and government affairs at ACA International, a trade group for collectors.
There are now nearly twice as many cell phones as landlines, and the number of landlines is going down by 3% to 5% a year, said Alan Berrey, the vice president of text and mobile messaging at SoundBite Communications, a company that sells multichannel plans for customer communication.
The Federal Trade Commission, however, is recommending that the law retain the requirement for consumer permission. The FTC has said it believes that consumers should be fully informed that they can get calls on their cell phones, and expressly consent to this, said Thomas Kane, a senior attorney at the agency.
The commission's main concern is that some consumers have restrictive wireless plans that charge for every call or text message.
"Consumers should not have to pay to be contacted by debt collectors," Kane said.
But the collection industry believes that the FTC's policy stance is too strict.
The law, Markoff said, would be better aimed at restricting the number of calls or text messages sent weekly or monthly, particularly because it is easy to see a violation on the phone bill.
The industry also is working to eliminate the cost to the consumer, Berrey said.
For example, his company has a patent pending on Free-to-End-User technology that would let text messages be delivered at no cost to the consumer.
Another issue, said Hayes, the trade group official, is that collectors have no way of knowing whether a number goes to a cell phone or landline.
Kane said the FTC has taken no position on what happens if a collector does not realize that a number was a cell phone's.
The industry wants additional changes in the law.
ACA International takes the position that the law's prohibition of third-party disclosure unreasonably restricts the use of e-mail and texting.
The problem, Kane said, is that third parties can get access to these forms of communication, thus violating the law.
The FTC is recommending to Congress that it be given the authority to adopt rules interpreting the law, but Congress has not acted, according to Kane.
At press time, no bill had been introduced in the House or the Senate.