Federal lawmakers are calling on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Defense (DOD) to investigate a report that some retailers have filed debt collection lawsuits against active duty military.
The report, published by ProPublica, found that Virginia-based retailer USA Discounters files lawsuits against service members based "anywhere in the world, no matter how much inconvenience or expense they would incur to attend a Virginia court date."
The company has filed more than 13,470 suits since 2006, records show, although how many were filed against service members could not be verified.
U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.) - joined by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) - sent a letter to CFPB Director Richard Cordray and DOD Secretary Chuck Hagel expressing concerns about "aggressive debt collection actions against active duty service members without affording them, arguably, a real opportunity to defend themselves" and urged the agencies to fully investigate the claims.
"Since many active duty servicemembers are often transferred out-of-state or even out-of-country it is more difficult for them to defend themselves," the letter states. "As a result, the retailers are alleged to have used these cases to force involuntary garnishment of service members wages while they are serving our country."
The ProPublica report found that the retailer has stores near military installations across the U.S. and was offering easy credit to service members. When those individuals fell behind on their payments, the company used the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file thousands of lawsuits against active duty men and women, sometimes including those serving overseas.
The Servicemember Civil Relief Act was passed to protect the legal interests of service members who often face unique financial circumstances as a result of their deployment. In the letter, the senators wrote the Act "allows service members to devote their full attention to protecting our country and seeks to prevent unscrupulous actors from taking advantage of financial challenges that may result from a deployment." The recent report, they wrote, indicates "that certain retailers may have violated the spirit of this law."
"We urge you to fully investigate these claims and educate our service members about their rights and the debt collection practices used by these retailers," the Senators concluded. "In addition, we encourage you to determine whether there are any actions we can take to ensure due process for our service members, especially the practice of including contractual provisions that may limit service members ability to defend themselves while they are on active duty."
ProPublica, in its investigation, reviewed 70 of USA Discounter's contracts for service members and non-military borrowers, all of which had been filed in court. ProPublica bills itself as an independent, non-profit entity that produces investigative reports in the public interest.