SMU Law Review
A principal protection against the collection of consumer debts that are not actually owed is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act’s (FDCPA) validation notice, which obliges debt collectors demanding payment to notify consumers of their rights to dispute debts and request verification, among other things. This Article reports on the first public study of whether consumers understand the notices or what they take away from them. For nearly four decades, courts have decided whether validation notices satisfied the FDCPA without ever knowing when or if consumers understand the notices. This Article attempts to remedy that problem.
Collectors who prefer that consumers focus on the request for payment rather than a statement of consumer rights will find our results heartening. When we surveyed consumers by showing them a collection letter the Seventh Circuit had upheld against challenge, on most questions respondents did not show significantly better understanding of their validation rights from that letter than did the respondents who saw an otherwise identical letter without any validation notice at all. More than half the court-approved letter respondents seemed confused by the notice’s phrasing about when the collector would assume the debt to be valid. About a quarter did not realize they could request verification of the debt, and nearly all who realized they could seek verification also thought that an oral request was sufficient even though both the statute and notice specify that a writing is required. More than a third of respondents thought that if they did not meet the thirty-day deadline specified in the validation notice for disputing the debt, they would have to pay the debt or could not defend against a suit to collect it even if they did not owe the debt. Under the standard the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) uses for determining deception in surveys, the notice would be found deceptive.
Our results raise troubling questions about the effectiveness of current forms of validation notices, and therefore whether consumers being pursued by collectors for debts they do not owe are appropriately protected. The willingness of courts to approve validation notices that do not serve Congress’s goals creates the illusion of consumer protection without the reality.