The federal government’s consumer watchdog unveiled its plan Thursday for overhauling the debt-collection industry, targeting the problematic practices some companies use to intimidate people into paying – even when they may not owe any money.

The plan from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would limit how often debt collectors could call consumers. The rules would also make it easier for people to dispute errors, require collection agencies to do more to verify debts , and strengthen protections that limit when collectors can contact consumers.

“We continue to hear about serious problems with debt collection — debiting accounts without authorization, calling at all hours of the day or night, threats of arrest or criminal prosecution, or threats of physical harm to consumers and even their pets,” CFPB director Richard Cordray said.

Under the potential rules, debt collectors would not be able to call consumers more than six times a week. Consumers would also be able to block certain phone numbers or tell collection agencies not to call while they’re at work. And for cases when a debtor dies, the agency may require debt collectors to wait at least 30 days before contacting family members about payment.

The rules would also tackle one of the biggest complaints the agency received from consumers last year — that collectors were calling about debts that they didn’t owe. Under the rules, collection firms only would be able to seek payment on debts if they have evidence to prove that the amounts owed are accurate. And when they receive disputes from consumers, companies would need to hold off on collection efforts until after they reviewed that paperwork. Collectors would also need to evaluate that evidence again before taking a consumer to court, double-checking details such as the principal, fees charged and any
payments made by the consumer.

Debt collection companies said that they had been preparing for the long anticipated rules by investing in compliance and training. But industry representatives also said they worried the rules would make it more difficult for them to collect on debts. “If creditors are not able to collect rightfully-owed debts, they will be less likely to extend credit to consumers who rely on credit for much needed goods and services,” said Cindy Sebrell, a spokeswoman for ACA International, a trade group for debt collectors.

Meanwhile, some consumer groups said the potential rules outlined by the agency do not go far enough to protect consumers. The National Consumer Law Center said in a statement that the weekly cap on the number of calls that debt collectors can make should be lower than six a week. The group also said consumers should have the ability to tell debt collectors to stop calling altogether, and it criticized the agency for not introducing stricter penalties for debt collectors that break the rules.

“Most people who owe debts simply do not have the money to pay due to unexpected illness, unemployment, or divorce,” Margot Saunders, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, said in the statement. “Abusive collectors should not be allowed to add to families’ stress with multiple harassing calls each week.”

The bureau’s plan is part of a broader crackdown on the industry from regulators. Last fall, the Federal Trade Commission and other federal, state and local regulators announced enforcement actions against collection companies they said used illegal tactics to scare consumers into paying. And nearly a year ago, the CFPB took action against the two largest debt buyers in the country, Encore Capital Group and Portfolio Recovery Associates, for suing consumers for debts they couldn’t verify completely.

The agency will now seek feedback from the industry, consumer advocates and other groups before it officially proposes the regulations, which may not happen until next year. The outline unveiled this week affect debt buyers and third-party debt collectors that are hired by creditors. The agency said it would tackle potential rules for first-party debt collectors and creditors at a later time.

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