How are there two extremes when it comes to sending a text message to a debtor? The answer is actually quite simple. There is no answer because the FDCPA does not specifically address text messaging. In 1977, when the FDCPA was passed into law, text messaging and other contemporary forms of communication did not exist. Since then, not only have new methods of communication been introduced but the population’s preference for how they want to be communicated with has changed dramatically. Almost anyone with children can confirm that texting and social media dwarfs communicating over the phone or in person. In fact, we see these same preferences in the younger generation workforce as well.
Education aside, how can the agency start sending text messages? There is no law detailing the use of text messages as a method of communication; however there is law regarding how the agency can communicate with the debtor. The same rules in place for communicating via phone calls, letters, and emails need to be followed when sending text messages. If we evaluate this from a technology perspective, agencies are faced with a challenge. Even the newest collection software available does not include a module for text messaging. For now, agencies must partner with an outsider provider to capture the necessary technology to launch a text messaging campaign. Using an outside service provider equals a need for integration. Here are three technology considerations for implementing your text messaging campaign:
As with calling a cell phone or sending an email, you must get consent from the debtor. Yes, this can be achieved over the phone if you actually speak with the debtor but I have seen a more systematic approach. If you are driving the debtor to a payment portal, whether from your own website or through a letter campaign, ask for consent when they log into the portal. Setup the first screen to include a checkbox for consent to receive text messages. Furthermore, if the box is checked, ask for updated contact information. Force the debtor to confirm or update their phone numbers and address information before they can move to the payment portion of the site. I have seen technology offerings like this from several letter vendors and payment processing vendors in the industry.
2. Data Integrity
If the debtor does consent and provides updated demographic information, do not assume it is accurate. You should not be in a hurry to overwrite the primary phone number and address you have in your collection software just because something newer has been presented. The debtor may consent to receiving text messages and then deceitfully or not, provide a wireless phone number that does not belong to them. Sending a text message to the wrong phone number could mean you have just disclosed the debt to a third party and violated the law. Ask the debtor to respond to an initial text somehow confirming the phone number belongs to them. After passing your integrity checks, update the primary phone and/or address information in your collection software with the newly provided demographic data. However, do not fully delete any previous demographic data. Capture it in a previous record module or in the account notes.
The design and development of the data integration, or interface, will need to be tested and in place before launching your text messaging campaign. Most vendors will offer a batch mode integration. This file-based solution usually involves an overnight file delivery for updates that day. The agency will receive that file and import it into their collection software. An import interface must be built into your collection software. Depending on how many files are delivered or the schema of the files, more than one import interface may be required. The data in your collection software will always be up to 24 hours behind the payment/consent portal because the updates will not be received and processed until later that night. A real-time solution will process updates from the portal as they occur and import the updates into your collection software automatically.
For now, sending text messages to debtors remains a gray area. While text specific regulation is being formed, will you wait for others to push ahead and evaluate the fallout or will you implement this modern day, and often preferred, contact method?