The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has imposed a fine of 800,000 euros on debt collection agency Unitedcall for aggressive and unfair debt collection practices. Employees of the company called Dutch consumers about bills that supposedly had not yet been paid. Consumers were put under enormous pressure to pay for the bill immediately. The employees of the call center refused to give consumers information about the bills, which meant consumers were not able to verify whether these bills were valid. The company operated from Turkey, and it used various fictitious names of debt collection agencies. Since 2018, ACM has received many reports from consumers about these practices, filed with its consumer information portal ACM ConsuWijzer. ACM had previously already warned consumers against these practices.
Cateautje Hijmans van den Bergh, Member of the Board of ACM, says: “The company approached consumers with an incoherent story about some outstanding bill. If consumers asked for information about this bill, the company refused to provide information. The company then exerted enormous pressure on consumers to pay immediately by threatening and intimidating them. This is very harmful for consumer confidence in the debt collection sector. That is why we have imposed this fine.”
Consumers received a phone call from a debt collection agency claiming that they had to transfer money to a foreign bank account because of an outstanding bill. Unitedcall called consumers under various names of supposed debt collection agencies, such as Pay Care and Business Collect. In these conversations, consumers were pressured to pay huge sums of money for supposed outstanding bills. These sums varied from hundreds to thousands of euros.
In these conversations, consumers were told that they had previously (in some cases, as far as two years ago) agreed to an offer for a product or a service, such as a lottery subscription or vouchers for a flight or a hotel stay. The Unitedcall employee claimed that, at the time, the consumer agreed to the offer, and had not cancelled in the meantime, which meant that there was now an outstanding bill, which would be collected plus additional costs. If consumers asked for more information about the outstanding bill, the company refused to give that information. Consumers were never given the opportunity to verify the authenticity of the supposed unpaid bill. Moreover, the Unitedcall employees used threatening language, and demanded that the bill be paid that same day. If the consumer failed to do so, the company would seize their belongings. (‘if you do not pay, we will seize your income’, ‘then you will surely go to jail for a few days for not paying a thousand euros’, or ‘I will send a couple of police officers your way’).
What are the rules with regard to debt collection?
For the protection of consumers, several rules apply to debt collection of unpaid bills:
- The bills in question must be valid;
- Upon request, consumers must receive information about the bill, so they are able to verify whether the amount is indeed owed;
- The additional costs that a debt collection agency can charge have been laid down in legislation;
- Debt collection costs can only be charged after consumers have received an additional payment reminder (the 14-day notice period);
- When collecting outstanding bills, companies are not allowed to use undue force. Debt collection agencies are also not allowed to threaten with powers they do not have, such as immediate seizure of money or property without a court ruling.
Unitedcall failed to follow these rules. The company acted in violation of the professional standards that apply to the debt collection sector. In addition, the crass methods employed by Unitedcall, which had a huge impact on consumers, constitute illegal aggressive commercial practices. For both violations, which took place in 2018, ACM has imposed a fine of 800,000 euros.