Pamela Johnson of Orange is one of many people who have recently received notices from a debt collector called West Bay Acquisitions over supposedly unreturned Hollywood Video DVDs.
The video-rental chain's parent company, Hollywood Entertainment, was purchased by an outfit called Movie Gallery in 2005. Five years later, Movie Gallery went out of business, selling its portfolio of outstanding customer obligations to West Bay Acquisitions.
Johnson, 68, said she was "dumbfounded" to receive a notice the other day saying she owes $24.43 for several DVDs that she rented from Hollywood Video in 2009 and never returned.
"I've never kept any DVDs," she said. "I never had any problem with Hollywood Video at all."
However, she has no receipt from 2009 attesting to her video-rental honesty — who would? — so she isn't sure how to keep the debt collector at bay, or whether her credit score could be harmed if she ignores West Bay's claims.
As it stands, debt collectors are largely unregulated by the federal government. They fall mainly under the purview of states, which may or may not have the wherewithal to ensure that consumers are treated fairly.
But new rules proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would change that. For the first time, large debt collectors and credit reporting companies would have Uncle Sam looking over their shoulder to guarantee that people were getting a fair shake.
"Debt collectors and credit reporting agencies have gone unsupervised by the federal government for too long," Richard Cordray, director of the agency, told me.
"Unlike most services or products where consumers can shop around among different providers, consumers can't do that with these businesses," Cordray said. "Consumers don't get to choose their debt collector, and they don't get to choose whether to have the consumer credit reporting agencies keep track of their credit history."
Cordray added that credit reporting companies such as Experian, Equifax and TransUnion represent a "murky unknown" for most people.
"You probably don't know how much information they have on you, or how much influence they have over your credit," he said.
Heck, you probably don't even know who owns these companies. For its part, TransUnion said Friday that it was being purchased for more than $3 billion by buyout firm Advent International and a Goldman Sachs investment banking fund.
Each of the leading credit reporting companies keeps files on about 200 million consumers. That's a lot of muscle — and responsibility.
"We hear a lot of complaints from consumers about credit bureaus dragging their feet to correct credit report mistakes," said Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union. "Consumers need and deserve a better system for fixing errors that can cost them in the long run."
As for debt collectors, she said some companies illegally harass consumers with repeated phone calls or threats of financial ruin. Many also attempt to collect debts that exceed a state's statute of limitations.
"There is a long history of debt collectors taking advantage of the elderly, students, military personnel and others — some of our most vulnerable populations," Banks said. "Greater oversight would help protect consumers and shine a light on these predatory practices."
Under the bureau's proposal, credit reporting companies that pull down more than $7 million a year from their consumer business would face federal supervision. The 30 companies that fall into this category account for about 94% of the market.
Meanwhile, debt collectors with more than $10 million in annual revenue would also be subject to federal scrutiny. This should cover about 175 debt collection firms, representing about 63% of the market.
I asked Cordray whether he's ever run afoul of a debt collector. He admitted that he got a notice once over some overdue library books.
"But I wasn't a scofflaw," he insisted, laughing. "I just had to pay some fines."
The consumer bureau will be taking comments from the public and businesses over the next 60 days on its website. The aim is to make the rule official by July, the two-year anniversary of the agency's creation.
As for Johnson's problem with West Bay Acquisitions, I gave the company a call and presented her dilemma. How could anyone deal with a roughly $25 debt claim dating back several years?
Perhaps aware that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may soon be on the case, a service rep for West Bay said Johnson and other recipients of the company's Hollywood Video debt notices shouldn't worry.
All you have to do, he said, is send a letter to the company disputing the charge and declaring that no money is actually owed. West Bay will then close your file, no muss, no fuss. Or so they say.
The company's address is P.O. Box 8009, Cranston, RI 02920.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.