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Reed objects to debt tactics aimed at service members

U.S. Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., has called for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Defense to investigate the findings of an alarming recent report indicating that certain retailers have filed debt collection suits against active duty service members who do not have a reasonable opportunity to defend themselves while serving out-of-state or overseas.

Reed was joined by Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticu, and Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia in a letter to the bureau director, Richard Cordray, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The senators expressed concern about the “aggressive debt collection actions against active duty service members without affording them, arguably, a real opportunity to defend themselves” and urged the agencies to investigate.

“Since many active duty servicemembers are often transferred out-of-state — or even out-of-country — it is more difficult for them to defend themselves,” the senators wrote.

“As a result, the retailers are alleged to have used these cases to force involuntary garnishment of service members’ wages while they are serving our country.”

The ProPublica-Washington Post report found that USA Discounters, a retailer with stores near military installations around the country, and similar retailers, were offering easy credit to service members.

And then when those individuals fell behind on their payments, the company used the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file thousands of lawsuits against active duty men and women in the armed forces.

“USA Discounters and two other military-focused retailers, all headquartered in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, have filed more than 35,000 suits since 2006 in two local courts,” ProPublica reported.

In the letter, the senators cited the Servicemember Civil Relief Act, which was implemented to protect the legal interests of service members who often face unique financial circumstances as a result of their deployment or duties. Specifically, the senators said, “the SCRA allows service members to devote their full attention to protecting our country and seeks to prevent unscrupulous actors from taking advantage of financial challenges that may result from a deployment.” The recent report, however, indicates “that certain retailers may have violated the spirit of this law.”

“We urge you to fully investigate these claims and educate our service members about their rights and the debt collection practices used by these retailers,” the senators concluded. “In addition, we encourage you to determine whether there are any actions we can take to ensure due process for our service members, especially the practice of including contractual provisions that may limit service members’ ability to defend themselves while they are on active duty.”

Reed led this same group of senators in writing to Hagel on a related issue recently regarding the Department of Defense’s allotment system, which allows service members to automatically direct a portion of their paycheck to certain persons or institutions.

Recent press reports indicate other crooked businesses have been using the system, and other payment mechanisms, to sign service members up for questionable payment plans and then suing them for failure to pay.

“We must adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards predatory lenders that target military members,” said Reed, a senior member of both the Senate Armed Services and Senate Banking Committees. “Men and women serving our country should not have to worry about being taken advantage of while they are overseas or out of touch, and there must be strong protections in place to prevent these bad actors from preying on servicemembers at home and abroad.”

Blumenthal signed onto a similar letter to the consumer bureau and the FTC, requesting that they issue regulations to forbid the retailers’ questionable legal tactics.

— Office of U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

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