by Jeff Sovern
My co-author, Kate Walton, and I have posted a draft of our new article, Are Validation Notices Valid? An Empirical Evaluation of Consumer Understanding of Debt Collection Validation Notices to SSRN. We would love comments on this version. Here's the abstract:
A principal protection against the collection of consumer debts that are not actually owed is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act’s validation notice, which obliges debt collectors demanding payment to notify consumers of their rights to dispute debts and request verification, among other things. No one has ever studied whether consumers understand the notices or what they take away from them. Consequently, 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 reports on the first study of that question.
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 the validation notice in that letter than on an otherwise identical letter without any validation notice at all. Nearly half the respondents who saw the court-approved letter did not realize it said they could dispute the debt. 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 fifth 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 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.