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Professional Claims Bureau, Inc.
439 Oak Street
Garden City, NY 11530
Fax: 516-681-1265

You’re Dead? That Won’t Stop the Debt Collector

Published: March 3, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS — The banks need another bailout and countless homeowners cannot handle their mortgage payments, but one group is paying its bills: the dead.

Dozens of specially trained agents work on the third floor of DCM Services here, calling up the dear departed’s next of kin and kindly asking if they want to settle the balance on a credit card or bank loan, or perhaps make that final utility bill or cellphone payment.

The people on the other end of the line often have no legal obligation to assume the debt of a spouse, sibling or parent. But they take responsibility for it anyway.

“I am out of work now, to be honest with you, and money is very tight for us,” one man declared on a recent phone call after he was apprised of his late mother-in-law’s $280 credit card bill. He promised to pay $15 a month.

Dead people are the newest frontier in debt collecting, and one of the healthiest parts of the industry. Those who dun the living say that people are so scared and so broke it is difficult to get them to cough up even token payments.

Collecting from the dead, however, is expanding. Improved database technology is making it easier to discover when estates are opened in the country’s 3,000 probate courts, giving collectors an opportunity to file timely claims. But if there is no formal estate and thus nothing to file against, the human touch comes into play.

New hires at DCM train for three weeks in what the company calls “empathic active listening,” which mixes the comforting air of a funeral director with the nonjudgmental tones of a friend. The new employees learn to use such anger-deflecting phrases as “If I hear you correctly, you’d like...”

“You get to be the person who cares,” the training manager, Autumn Boomgaarden, told a class of four new hires.

For some relatives, paying is pragmatic. The law varies from state to state, but generally survivors are not required to pay a dead relative’s bills from their own assets. In theory, however, collection agencies could go after any property inherited from the deceased.

But sentiment also plays a large role, the agencies say. Some relatives are loyal to the credit card or bank in question. Some feel a strong sense of morality, that all debts should be paid. Most of all, people feel they are honoring the wishes of their loved ones.

“In times of illness and death, the hierarchy of debts is adjusted,” said Michael Ginsberg of Kaulkin Ginsberg, a consulting company to the debt collection industry. “We do our best to make sure our doctor is paid, because we might need him again. And we want the dead to rest easy, knowing their obligations are taken care of.”

Finally, of course, some of those who pay a dead relative’s debts are unaware they may have no legal obligation.

Scott Weltman of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, a Cleveland law firm that performs deceased collections, says that if family members ask, “we definitely tell them” they have no legal obligation to pay. “But is it disclosed upfront — ‘Mr. Smith, you definitely don’t owe the money’? It’s not that blunt.”

DCM Services, which began in 1999 as a law firm, recently acquired clients in banking, automobile finance, retailing, telecommunications and health care; DCM says its contracts preclude it from naming them.

The companies “want to protect their brand,” said DCM’s chief executive, Steven Farsht. Despite the delicacy of such collections, he says his 180-employee firm is providing a service to the economy. “The financial services industry is under a tremendous amount of pressure, and every dollar we collect improves their profitability,” he said.

To listen to even a small sample of DCM’s calls — executives played tapes of 10 of them for a reporter, electronically edited to remove all names — is to reveal the wages of misery, right down to the penny. ... 1&sq=dcm&st=cse

March 11, 2009

Chairman Jon Leibowitz
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580

Dear Chairman Leibowitz:

I am dismayed to learn from recent media reports that some debt collection companies have made it a practice to attempt to collect unpaid credit card balances – and perhaps other types of unsecured debts – from the families of the deceased. According to numerous reports, these companies call surviving relatives, often shortly after the death of a loved one, to coax or cajole them into making payments on the deceased relative’s credit card. To say the least, this practice is distasteful and unethical. Moreover, this practice may very well violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. I am hereby requesting that the Federal Trade Commission investigate whether debt collection companies are violating the law when they engage in this practice, and exactly what information they are conveying to surviving relatives who are under no obligation to pay off their loved ones’ credit cards.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, among its many prohibitions, prevents debt collectors from contacting anyone other than the credit card holder without the prior consent of the holder. Specifically, the Act provides that “a debt collector may not communicate, in connection with the collection of any debt, with any person other than the consumer, his attorney, a consumer reporting agency if otherwise permitted by law, the creditor, the attorney of the creditor, or the attorney of the debt collector.” “Consumer” is defined in the Act as a “natural person” who owes a debt. If this language does not apply to a situation in which the consumer is deceased, I would like to know the basis for such an opinion.

I find it shocking that a debt collection company would determine that it is worth causing profound anguish and embarrassment in order to collect debts that are sometimes as low as $50, or which result in a payment of $15 a month from a widow or widower who is struggling to make ends meet. If a debt is large enough to be worth collecting, there are legal ways to obtain payment. First, if a surviving family member has also signed for the card, that family member will be obligated to pay the debt. Second, an unsecured creditor such as a credit card issuer can obtain payment from the estate of the deceased through a routine probate proceeding, after the holders of secured debt – such as mortgagors– are paid. This practice of harassing living family members for upfront payments results in putting credit card issuers in the front of the line to get money from an estate, rather than after those who hold secured debt.

Given the current economic situation, in which millions of honest, hard-working Americans are struggling to meet their obligations, this practice is opportunistic and destructive.

In addition to opening an investigation into these practices, I would like the answers to the following questions:

Which debt collection companies (“collectors”) are engaging in the practice of collecting credit card debt from widows, widowers, children, and other relatives of the deceased?

Which credit card issuers are hiring these collectors, or selling their debts to these collectors? Have the issuers endorsed this practice, either by turning a blind eye toward it or by specifically encouraging it?

Does the practice of trying to collect unsecured debts from the living relatives of debtors who have passed on violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act’s prohibition on communicating with third parties? If not, why not? What measures could be taken to make sure that these practices are stopped?

If these practices are currently legal, are these collectors uniformly making sure that they tell living relatives that they have no legal obligation to pay the debt? Further, are the collectors informing the living relatives of the statute of limitations for collecting these debts? Are the collectors informing the living relatives that any credit card debt would be paid from the estate only after other secured debts, such as mortgage and car payments, are paid?

Given that the FTC receives more complaints about debt collection companies than any other American business, I hope and expect that you will be thorough in your investigation of this matter.


Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator

The debt collectors are behaving badly again. This time they're hitting up surviving family members for money that's owed by the dead!

The New York Times reports that some collection agencies specialize in this somewhat morbid pursuit. Collectors even receive "sensitivity" training to deal with grieving relatives. They'll speak in hushed tones on the phone like a funeral director and refer you to a legitimate grief counselor if necessary.

In most cases, you have no legal obligation to assume the debt of a late spouse, sibling or parent. But the collectors will never tell you that.

The only states where there is a possibility that a surviving spouse may have some responsibility for a debt are "community property states" -- Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

In such states, an executor/executrix or administrator (in the event there is no will) may be responsible for assessing the estate to see if there's money to pay out to creditors.

But in general, if you get a call from these slimeballs, know that you likely don't owe them a penny.
Caller ID: 516-681-1122
Caller: Professional Claims Bureau, Inc.
Call Type: Debt Collector
 Apr 22nd, 2010