Are America's military families being targeted by aggressive debt collectors?
Nearly half (46 percent) of the 19,000 complaints the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received from servicemembers in 2015 dealt with debt collectors, according to a recent report. Servicemembers and veterans are nearly twice as likely to submit debt collection complaints as the general population, according to the CFPB.
Debt collection was the top complaint category for the second year in a row, followed by mortgages and credit reporting.
"It troubles me to see the very abusive tactics I see being used by debt collectors," said Holly Petraeus, assistant director for the CFPB's Office of Servicemember Affairs. "In a number of instances, it may not be a debt the servicemember even owes. It may be one that was incorrectly reported, the amount may be wrong, but they're pressured to pay no matter what."
A significant number of complaints involved collectors who contacted a debtor's commanding officer — which could jeopardize the servicemember's security clearance — or who threatened to do so.
In these cases, servicemembers often pay — even if they don't believe they owe the debt — just so they won't get in trouble, Petraeus told NBC News.
Last year, the CFPB ordered an Ohio auto lender to refund $2.3 million and pay a million dollar penalty for illegal debt collection practices. The CFPB charged the company with threatening to get the servicemembers in trouble with their military chain of command or actually contacting a commanding officer about an unpaid debt.
Medical debt is often mentioned in military complaints, especially by veterans. They report being hounded to pay medical bills that should have been covered by insurance (VA health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid).
"These veterans are often left stressed and worried about their credit report due to these potentially erroneous collections," the CFPB report noted.
Industry Challenges the Government's Data
Cindy Sebrell, vice president of public affairs at the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals (ACA), acknowledges that there is need for improvement regarding debt collection from service members.
Threats to disclose debts of servicemembers to commanding officers or to jeopardize security clearances is "unacceptable and unlawful," she wrote in an email to NBC News. "A reputable debt collection agency would not engage in this practice, and ACA does not condone it."
The CFPB report shows that debt collection companies respond quickly to 92 percent of complaints received about servicemembers from the CFPB, and an overwhelming majority of those complaints are resolved amicably, Sebrell said.
ACA also questioned the accuracy and quality of CFPB's data and analysis of the complaints received.
"While ACA is absolutely committed to fair, respectful, and lawful collection practices, we have serious concerns with how the CFPB publicly shares complaint data that they acknowledge has not been verified and then issues reports, such as this one, which make broad claims about the debt collection industry as a whole without providing the underlying data and methodology to support them," Sebrell wrote.
"In this case, even the CFPB's report itself acknowledges that the number of military debt collection complaints could be caused by a variety of factors."
Military at Extra Risk for Identity Theft
Being in the military, with its mobile lifestyle, creates enormous challenges. Servicemembers may be away from home for training or deployed overseas, making it hard to monitor their finances and fix problems that may crop up. This makes military families especially vulnerable to identity theft, the new report noted.
The CFPB recommends that military families put an "active duty alert" on their credit files. The credit reporting industry agrees.
"An active duty alert compels lenders to take many additional steps to validate the identity of the consumer and to make sure they're not opening a fraudulent account," said Stuart Pratt, president and CEO of the Consumer Data Industry Association.
A military family that becomes a victim of ID theft should file an identity theft report using the Federal Trade Commission's IdentityTheft.gov website. It can help short-circuit some of the problems created by an ID thief.
If you have a problem with a consumer financial product or service, whether you're in the military or not, you can submit a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.