CFPB Concludes Most Convenience Fees Charged by Debt Collectors Violate the FDCPA

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Following its recent “initiative” and request for information to reduce “exploitative junk fees,” the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) has on June 29, 2022 released an advisory opinion. The opinion concludes that “pay-to-pay fees,” which the debt collection industry refers to as “convenience fees” violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) “unless the fee amount is in the consumer’s contract or affirmatively permitted by law.”

Section 808(1) of the FDCPA, 15 U.S.C. § 1692f(1), states: “A debt collector may not use unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt. Without limiting the general application of the foregoing, the following conduct is a violation of this section: (1) The collection of any amount (including any interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation) unless such amount is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law.” Despite acknowledging that some courts have ruled otherwise, the advisory opinion concludes that “[t]he collection of any fee is prohibited unless the fee amount is in the consumer’s contract or affirmatively permitted by law.” CFPB Press release; see advisory opinion at 5. The opinion also construes the term “permitted by law” narrowly so that “[w]here no law expressly authorizes a fee, it is not ‘permitted by law,’ even if no law expressly prohibits it.” Id. “The CFPB therefore interprets FDCPA section 808(1) to prohibit a debt collector from collecting any amount unless such amount either is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt (and is not prohibited by law) or is expressly permitted by law. That is, the CFPB interprets FDCPA section 808(1) to permit collection of an amount only if: (1) the agreement creating the debt expressly permits the charge and some law does not prohibit it; or (2) some law expressly permits the charge, even if the agreement creating the debt is silent.” Advisory opinion at 6. The opinion also clarifies that “[d]ebt collectors violate the FDCPA when using payment processors who charge unauthorized fees at a minimum if the debt collector receives a kickback from the payment processor.” CFPB Press release.

The CFPB’s jurisdiction and advisory opinion is limited to construing federal law, in this instance the FDCPA, which governs consumer debt collection by (mostly) third-party debt collectors. But it’s advisory opinion has state law implications as well. The Pennsylvania state law version of the FDCPA, for example, not only declares that “[i]t shall constitute an unfair or deceptive collection act or practice under this act if a debt collector violates any of the provisions of the [FDCPA],” it further prohibits first-party creditors from “us[ing] unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt” by “collect[ing] … any amount, including any interest, fee, charge or expense incidental to the principal obligation, unless such amount is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law.” PA ST § 2270.4(a) & (b)(6)(i). The Rhode Island version also prohibits “[a] debt collector,” defined to (mostly) include third-party collectors, from “[c]ollecting any amount (including any interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation) unless such amount is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law[.]” RI ST § 19-14.9-8(a). Collectors of consumer debt should check the laws of their applicable jurisdictions.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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