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Bryan P. Keenan

Pennsylvania court tightens restrictions on creditor harassment

When financial challenges occur, the collection floodgate opens. Letters, phone calls, emails and just about any other form of communication imaginable are used to try to collect the debt. But these attempts are subject to legal restrictions. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is one law that protects debtors from harassing conduct by collectors as well as other collection practices that could be detrimental to the debtor.

One Pennsylvania court recently added another restriction to collection practices. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania addressed whether even encoded information on an envelope sent to a debtor for collection purposes can violate the FDCPA. Its answer: yes.

In Styer v. Professional Medical Management, the debtor sued the collector, saying that a “Quick Response” code, called a “QR” code for short, contained encoded information that can be read with a decoder. But, even though it is encoded, because the information included in the QR code can include the debtor’s information such as his or her name and address, and even the account number being referenced in the collection letter, it violates the law.

Many collectors have been able to fly under the radar under the “benign language exception,” which exempts collectors from liability under the FDCPA if symbols or other information on an envelope or otherwise visible on a communication do not reveal an attempt to collect a debt or contain anything that would humiliate or threaten the debtor. But the court here said that even though the information was encoded, it is not benign because it is still accessible.

We recently published a blog post about how the advice of an attorney in a bankruptcy proceeding can be helpful in navigating a complex legal system. Most people are not aware of the protections available to them such as the FDCPA, even without filing for bankruptcy. Many collection practices are unlawful and, if proven, can result in forgiveness of the debt and even in the collection of monetary damages from the collector to punish them for their unscrupulous practices.

As this case shows, even information on an envelope that you can’t even read could violate the law. If you believe that you have been subject to any form of creditor harassment, whether or not you are considering filing for bankruptcy, consulting an attorney may be helpful in determining your rights as a debtor.

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