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Budget Deal Gives Debt Collectors Authority to ‘Robocall’ Cellphones

Tired of those annoying robocalls from Rachel at Card Services?

Thanks to a tiny amendment in last week's budget bill, you may soon be getting a lot more of them on your cellphone from debt collectors — especially if you owe money on a student loan, mortgage or any other debt backed by the federal government.

And, based on a CNBC.com analysis of over 50,000 consumer complaints related to debt collection, your cellphone may be targeted even if you don't owe anyone a dime.

The new assault on cellphone subscribers was set in motion by the bipartisan deal, which was hailed as a rare — if short-lived — moment of congressional consensus that promises to end a fiscal stalemate that has threatened periodic government shutdowns in the past few years.

But the bill was not passed without a flurry of deal-making that included the usual provisions needed to win votes. Among them was an 80-word section that authorizes "the use of automated telephone equipment to call cellular telephones for the purpose of collecting debts owed to the United States government."

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The bill, signed Monday by President Barack Obama, orders the Federal Communications Commission to set rules governing the debt collection industry's new authority to use robocalls to hunt down debtors and get them to pay up. But the debt-collection industry's desire to automate calls may owe much to the apparent inefficiency of the process.

A CNBC.com analysis of complaints logged in the last two years by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that roughly two-thirds of those that were related to debt collections were from people who didn't owe anyone anything. More than 21,000 consumers reported being harassed about debts that weren't theirs; 10,000 others said the debt had been paid or discharged in bankruptcy. Some 2,200 said the debt in question was the result of identity theft.

Graphic: The most common consumer complaints about debt collectors.
The most common consumer complaints about debt collectors. CNBC

The debt-collection industry argues that allowing automated calling will be good for consumers by using "modern dialing technology" to reach them "the way they want to be contacted," according to a statement by ACA International, a trade group representing third-party collection agencies.

Calling the budget provision "a good first step," ACA President Patrick Morris said in a recent post that "this type of relief should apply to all businesses seeking to provide normal, expected or desired information to their customers."

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Consumer groups opposing the change argue it will only increase the number of misdirected, unwanted call to cellphones

"Debt collectors have been using calls — and now texts — as a method of harassment with the idea that if you harass the debtor enough they'll pay the debt just to get rid of the harassment," said Margot Saunders, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. "That's exactly what the Fair Debt Collection Act is designed to prevent."

Prior to last week's budget deal, automated calls to cellphones were banned under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA), which restricted the use of automated dialing. But the measure has proved difficult to enforce. Last year, the FCC received more than 215,000 complaints from people who had received unwanted calls, despite the creation of a Do-Not-Call Registry for consumers who did not want to be called.

Aside from the time wasted for the targeted consumers, the high volume of misdirected calls represents a cost to the debt-collection industry that could be reduced by using automated calling services, generating higher profits for debt collectors.

Third-party debt collectors recovered more than $55 billion in debt, generating more than $10 billion in commissions and fees in 2013, according to the latest data available from ACA International. Debts related to health care (money owed to hospitals, doctors and clinics) accounted for nearly 38 percent of that amount, with student loan debt making up about a quarter. Credit card debt made up about 10 percent of the debt collected, with other government, retail, telecom, utility, private student loans and mortgage debt amounting to less than 10 percent.

But as American consumers have increasing shifted to cellphones from landlines, the debt collection industry has had a harder time reaching its target. Some 40 percent of homes rely exclusively on cellphones, according to 2013 data cited by the ACA, and among households with both services, about a third use their cellphones for most or all of their calling.

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Many of those are younger households with student loans, which currently total more than $1 trillion in outstanding debt. The provision in last week's budget, though, would apply to any debt owed to or backed by the federal government, including mortgages, VA loans, farm loans or back taxes.

Aside from logging complaints with regulators, consumers have found they have limited options when subjected to unwanted calls from debt collectors and finance services marketers. Even when connected with a human operator, information on the source of the call and the identity of the company can be difficult to obtain.

Under the TCPA, consumers receiving unsolicited calls can sue the calling company for up to $1,500 for each violation. But such suits are costly and difficult to initiate.

One recent case, filed in 2013 in Southern California, sought damages for tens of thousands of consumers who allegedly received unsolicited calls to their cellphones from a CBE Group, a company based in Cedar Falls, Iowa. But in September, a federal judge denied class status because individual trials would be needed to establish whether each consumer gave their consent to be called.

The larger battle over robocalls to cellphones isn't over. The FCC, which earlier this year cracked down on unsolicited telemarketing calls, has yet to write specific regulations governing automated calling for debt collection.

In July, the attorneys general of 44 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., asked the largest U.S. phone companies to install technology that would let consumers to block robocalls.

More from CNBC: U.S. States Tell Phone Companies: Stop Robocalls

And a bill introduced in the Senate this week, the ''Help Americans Never Get Unwanted Phone calls (HANGUP) Act of 2015, would repeal the budget provision permitting debt collection robocalls to cellphones

"Congress just delivered an early present to debt collectors: a new way to harass people through robocalls," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement. "The Hangup Act will protect Americans from an onslaught of aggressive phone calls and costly cellphone charges."