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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Collection Agency Letter Found to Say Too Much

(CN) - A debt collection agency's disclosure of a consumer's account number on the face of an envelope is an invasion of privacy, the 3rd Circuit ruled.

In May 2011, Courtney Douglass received a debt collection letter from Convergent Outsourcing about a debt she allegedly owed T-Mobile USA.

Like most business-related mail, the letter was sent in an envelope with a glassine window, but because of the of the size of the window, and the way the letter was placed inside, far more than Douglass's name and address were visible to anyone who saw it, wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Anthony Joseph Scirica.

The window also revealed Convergent's account number for Douglass, and a so-called quick response code, which when scanned by a smart phone, revealed the money Douglass allegedly owed.

Douglass sued in the federal court in Philadelphia, claiming that the disclosure violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

But U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky dismissed the case, finding that the account number constituted "benign language."

Benign language neither signals the letter's purpose of debt collection, nor intends to humiliate, or threaten the letter's recipient.

On Friday, the 3rd Circuit reversed that decision, reinstating Douglass's case.

"Convergent's disclosure implicates a core concern animating the FDCPA - the invasion of privacy," Judge Scirica said, writing for the three-judge panel. "The account number is a core piece of information pertaining to Douglass's status as a debtor and Convergent's debt collection effort. Disclosed to the public, it could be used to expose her financial predicament. Because Convergent's disclosure implicates core privacy concerns, it cannot be deemed benign."

Convergent cited cases permitting the presence of "harmless words of symbols" on an envelope, and pointed out that a literal interpretation of the statute would create an absurd result, with even a stamp potentially running foul of the Act.

"Convergent insists that Douglass's account number is a meaningless string of numbers and letters, and its disclosure has not harmed and could not possibly harm Douglass. But the account number is not meaningless - it is a piece of information capable of identifying Douglass as a debtor. And its disclosure has the potential to cause harm to a consumer that the FDCPA was enacted to address," Scirica wrote.

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