New law protects consumers from confusing and widely criticized debt collection tactic
OLYMPIA — Today, with a bipartisan vote of 31-17 in the Washington State Senate, state legislators passed a bill prohibiting “pocket service” debt collection practices, which allow debt collectors to blindside consumers with default judgments in order to seize wages, bank account funds, or other assets.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson requested the legislation, House Bill 1066, sponsored by Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place. The House of Representatives passed the bill with a bipartisan vote of 59-37 on Feb. 14.
Pocket service allows debt collectors to send a court summons and complaint to Washingtonians before filing them with the superior court. The individual receives these documents with no case number or court date. These individuals do not realize that the 20-day deadline to respond starts when they receive the documents, regardless of whether the collection agency filed the complaint with the court.
This practice often confuses consumers, causing them to fail to respond, allowing the debt collector to obtain a default judgment. Many Washingtonians reasonably conclude that the unnumbered summons and complaint are not valid, particularly when they call the court and are told that no case has been filed. By failing to respond, consumers unwittingly give up their only opportunity to contest the debt. Washington is one of only eight states that allow this practice.
One Washington consumer, Rachel Hayes, who testified in support of the bill, described how pocket service affected her family. A debt collector sent a letter informing her that a claim had been filed against her over a $2,700 debt that was not actually hers. When she called the court and inquired about the claim, she was told it did not exist.
Believing it wasn’t a valid collection, she did nothing. Several months later, while attempting to purchase groceries for her son’s special dietary needs, her debit card was declined. When she contacted the bank, she found that her entire balance, including savings for her son, had been withdrawn due to a garnishment.
“This legislation ensures that what happened to me and my son will never happen to anyone else ever again,” Hayes said.
“This legislation started with Washingtonians reaching out to my office complaining about this unfair practice,” said Ferguson. “I want to thank them for sharing their stories so we could do something about it. Pocket service is an unfair shortcut for debt collectors intended to blindside Washingtonians with default judgments, allowing debt collectors to seize wages, bank account funds, or even foreclose on homes. It’s about time we put a stop to this confusing practice.”
“If a collection agency wants to take someone to court for a debt, they have that right,” Rep. Kilduff said. “But leading consumers to believe no court case exists just so a company can get a default judgment is wrong. House Bill 1066 makes an already complicated legal system more transparent and fair by eliminating the misleading practice of pocket service. I am delighted this consumer protection legislation is on its way to the Governor’s desk.”
Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Kirkland, sponsored a companion bill in the Senate.
“The passage of HB 1066 strengthens our state’s consumer protection guidelines,” Sen. Dhingra said. “Requiring debt collectors to file a lawsuit after issuing a summons will now become standard practice around the state. I am proud that once again the Legislature and the Attorney General collaborated to level the playing field for Washingtonians so that debts can be collected in a fair, transparent manner.”
Many organizations support this important legislation, including Statewide Poverty Action Network, Columbia Legal Services, Washington State Association for Justice, Washington State Labor Council, Superior Court Judges Association, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and many others.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.firstname.lastname@example.org