ACA International Responds to Misleading ACLU Report on Debt Collection Industry

ACA sets the record straight about the ACLU’s misguided attempt to undermine the commitment and integrity of the professional debt collection industry.

2/28/2018 1:00 PM

ACA International Responds to Misleading ACLU Report on Debt Collection Industry

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a misguided and heavily misleading report accusing private debt collectors of using the criminal justice system to “punish” and “terrorize” consumers. This is absolutely false and undermines the commitment and integrity of the professional debt collection industry. Legitimate debt collectors work with consumers to help recover outstanding debt on behalf of businesses, nonprofit organizations and governmental entities. Furthermore, despite the ACLU’s claim that debt collectors are responsible for sending consumers to prison, the truth is clear: debt collectors cannot put consumers in jail because they have not paid a debt and debt collectors are prohibited by law from threatening a consumer with arrest.

Put simply, the ACLU’s harrowing characterization of modern-day debtor’s prisons, while certainly disturbing, does not exist.

First, contrary to the allegations contained in “A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt,” debt collectors are governed by myriad federal, state and local laws and regulations regarding debt collection, and professional debt collectors take their compliance obligations very seriously. Indeed, the accounts receivable management industry is unique because it is one of the few industries in which Congress enacted a specific statute, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), governing all manner of communications with consumers when recovering payments.

Second, debt collectors do not advocate for, nor can they cause, a consumer to be arrested or jailed for an outstanding debt. Like any other civil court case, only a judge, at his or her sole discretion, can issue an arrest warrant that calls for jail time, and - even then - only when an individual has been ruled to be in contempt of court for failing to respond to a court order. Thus, it is a consumer’s failure to comply with a court order, not his or her failure to pay a debt, which results in potential jail time.

Even consumer resources make clear that consumers cannot go to jail for failure to pay a debt. For example, according to, a consumer financial education website:

Whether it’s a loan, a credit card, your mortgage, a payday loan – it doesn’t matter. No collection on any consumer debt will end in jail time. It just doesn’t happen. You cannot be detained, jailed, forced into community service or work programs, or anything of the like over your unpaid debts.

What’s more, according to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, it’s actually illegal for a debt collector to threaten you with any jail time. As a result, you can file a complaint and even sue a collector for violating the FDCPA if they make threats of this kind …

Warning: Don’t ignore court orders

It’s critical to note that there is one very specific way that a consumer debt can land you in jail – and it’s not because of the debt, itself. In some states if you fail to appear or follow the instructions of a civil court order related to your debt, then you can be found in contempt of court. As a result, a warrant can be issued for your arrest because you ignored the court’s orders. You still don’t go to jail because of the debt – you go as a result of your actions related to the collector’s attempt to sue you in civil court.[1]

Third, the ACLU’s claim that debt collectors manipulate the judiciary system for their benefit is simply wrong and runs counter to judicial independence. Moreover, if lawmakers were to adopt the ACLU’s request to limit judicial power by allowing court orders related to debt collection to be ignored without consequence, it would undermine a fair judicial process and endanger the judiciary’s ability to function. 

Finally, the key to effective recovery of outstanding debt is respectful, two-way communication. Unfortunately, however, the ACLU’s report spreads a false narrative that increases mistrust in the professional debt collection industry. This in turn impedes communication between consumers and debt collectors, a consequence that can result in serious, long-term financial harm to a consumer.

As the leading voice for the credit and collection industry, ACA International is disappointed in the misleading report released by the ACLU which inaccurately portrays debt collectors and the judicial system. However, ACA remains committed to working with policymakers, regulators, courts and attorneys general to identify practical solutions for improving communication between consumers and debt collectors so that judicial intervention in the recovery of debt is ultimately not needed. 



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