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Debt Collectors Put Translations on Hold, Foiling Immigrants

Debt-collecting agencies often lack fluent Spanish-speaking callers, according to a city report.
Debt-collecting agencies often lack fluent Spanish-speaking callers, according to a city report. Photo: Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

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When a debt collector called Alba Ramirez, she had no idea who was on the other line or what the person wanted.

“No comprende ‘hospital bill?’” the agent asked during the recorded August 2017 call.

“No, sir. Español, please,” Ramirez replied.

A transcript of the conversation was included in a new city report that found many debt collection agencies touting some form of language-access service failed to live up to their promises.

People who sought to speak to someone in Spanish were frequently put on hold for long stretches or transferred to an English-speaking voicemail, according to the report, “Lost in Translation: Findings from Examination of Language Access by Debt Collectors.”

“Being contacted about a debt … is even more difficult when you have trouble understanding basic information about the claims you owe and what you can do to resolve them,” said Lorelei Salas, commissioner of the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, which conducted the review.

The department probed 32 debt collection agencies from around the country that had generated complaints over the past two years. Investigators requested records from each firm, including call recordings and limited-English proficiency policies.

City investigators reached out to Ramirez, whose name was changed in the report to protect her identity, after listening to a recorded call from one of the debt collector agencies.

‘Rife with Discriminatory’ Practices

Immigration advocates said the findings were of particular concern to people in New York City, where an estimated one in four people struggle to read, speak, write or understand English, according to a report by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

“The debt collection industry is rife with discriminatory and abusive practices,” said Susan Shin, legal director at New Economy Project, an economic justice organization.

The 36-page report said debt agencies sometimes call people who don’t actually owe money. Some also fail to provide written notification before dinging a person’s credit report.

The report recommended a series of proposed federal, state and city legislative changes, including requiring debt collectors to provide mailers and calls in multiple languages.

“When left to their own devices,” the report concludes, “debt collectors are not taking adequate steps to ensure that limited-English proficiency consumers can understand and resolve their alleged debt.”

New Yorkers having problems with a debt collector can file a complaint with the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection. The department also suggests anyone with debt trouble visit one of the city’s Financial Empowerment Center’s for free, one-on-one financial counseling. People can make an appointment at nyc.gov/TalkMoney or by calling 311.

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