Monday, June 26, 2017

New York Times: Outside Collectors for I.R.S. Are Accused of Illegal Practices

By STACY COWLEY and JESSICA SILVER-GREENBERG

Raid your 401(k). Ask your boss for a loan, load up on your credit cards, or put up
your house as collateral by taking out a second mortgage.

Those are some of the financially risky strategies that Pioneer Credit Recovery
suggested to people struggling to pay overdue federal tax debt. The company is one
of four debt collection agencies hired by the Internal Revenue Service to chase down
late payments on 140,000 accounts with balances of up to $50,000.

The call scripts those agencies are using — obtained by a group of Democratic
senators and reviewed by The New York Times — shed light on how the tax agency’s
new fleet of private debt collectors extract payments from debtors. On Friday, those
senators sent a letter to Pioneer, the I.R.S. and the Treasury Department accusing
Pioneer of acting in “clear violation” of the tax code.

In the letter, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times, the four
senators, led by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, say that the I.R.S.’s contractors
are using illegal and abusive collection tactics.

In particular, they object to Pioneer’s “extraordinarily dangerous” suggestion that
debtors use 401(k) funds, home loans and credit cards to pay off their overdue taxes.

“Pioneer is unique among I.R.S. contractors in pressuring taxpayers to use
financial products that could dramatically increase expenses, or cause them to lose
their homes or give up their retirement security,” the senators wrote. “No other debt
collector makes these demands.”

On Thursday, in advance of receiving the letter, the I.R.S. said it was
comfortable with the approach its outside collectors were taking. The agency “is
committed to running a balanced program that respects taxpayer rights while
collecting the tax debts as intended under the law,” said Cecilia Barreda, an I.R.S.
spokeswoman.

The debt collectors are paid on commission, keeping up to 25 percent of what
they collect.

Pioneer instructs its employees to “suggest that liquidating assets or borrowing
money may be advantageous” and to “give the taxpayer ideas on where/how to
borrow,” according to the scripts it submitted to the I.R.S. for approval. If that route
does not work, the scripts show, Pioneer’s collection agents encourage taxpayers to
ask their family, friends and employers for money.

All four of the collection companies hired by the I.R.S. — CBE Group, ConServe,
Performant Recovery and Pioneer — tell debtors that they can set up an installment
plan lasting as long as seven years, two years longer than the span that private
collectors are legally allowed to offer. The code that authorizes the I.R.S. to hire
outside collectors says that they may offer taxpayers installment agreements that
cover “a period not to exceed five years.”

The I.R.S. said that payment plans lasting longer than five years were legal as
long as they were approved by the agency.

“If the taxpayer agrees, and after the I.R.S. approves, the private firm will
monitor payment arrangements between five and seven years,” Ms. Barreda said.

“This process is in accordance with the law and ensures that taxpayers assigned to
the private firms will have the same payment options as taxpayers dealing with the
I.R.S.”

Others disagree with the agency’s interpretation. Nina E. Olson, the national
taxpayer advocate at the I.R.S., said that the agency was engaging “in legalistic
gymnastics to justify something the law doesn’t allow.”

The I.R.S. is owed about $138 billion, a sum that lawmakers are eager to reduce.

To supplement the agency’s collection efforts, Congress ordered it to hire outside
firms — an approach that was tried twice before, in 1996 and in 2006, and then
abandoned because of cost overruns and concerns about abuses. Lawmakers hope
the new program, which began this year, will yield better results; the congressional
Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that it could net $2.4 billion over the next 10
years.

But consumer advocates, including Ms. Olson, view the project with alarm,
fearing that aggressive collectors will push troubled people to the financial brink and
hound them for payments they cannot afford.

To consumer advocates, the call scripts seem to realize their fears. All of the
collection companies encourage taxpayers who may not be able to fully pay off their
tax bill, even through installments, to make a one-time voluntary payment. Three of
the agencies instruct debtors that “extra payments or higher payments can be
accepted at any time.”

That kind of “give us anything you can” approach is common among consumer
debt collectors, but the government has typically been more measured, weighing
what is owed against what the taxpayer can reasonably afford. When taxpayers
cannot pay their entire bill at once, the I.R.S.’s internal collectors are generally only
permitted to place them into installment plans that will fully resolve their debt.

The idea is that pushing taxpayers to the limit, while temporarily good for the
I.R.S., causes long-term strain on the government over all. No one wins, the theory
goes, when taxpayers wind up on public assistance from settling overdue tax bills.

The I.R.S. does not try to collect from people who make only enough to afford basic
living expenses like food, housing and transportation. (Only one collector,
Performant, had lines in its scripts about how to handle hardship cases. Those
accounts should be marked and returned to the I.R.S., Performant instructed its
employees.)

Low-income taxpayers make up most of the cases farmed out to the private
collectors, according to an analysis by Ms. Olson. After reviewing the first batch of
files the I.R.S. sent to outside collectors, her office found that nearly a quarter of the
accounts involved taxpayers with below-poverty level wages, and more than half
were taxpayers with incomes of less than 250 percent of the poverty level.

Ms. Olson said she was “deeply concerned” by collectors suggesting that
taxpayers borrow against their retirement savings, take out home loans or increase
their other debts to pay their taxes.

“The I.R.S. may suggest those things, but the I.R.S. is authorized to perform a
financial analysis of a taxpayer’s ability to pay, and it does not collect from taxpayers
where its financial analysis shows doing so would impose a financial hardship,” she
said by email.

Pioneer, a subsidiary of Navient, was effectively fired two years ago by the
Education Department from its contract to collect overdue student loan debt after
the agency determined that it gave borrowers inaccurate information about their
loans at “unacceptably high rates.” Pioneer was sued this year by the Consumer
Financial Protection Bureau, which said it “systematically misled” borrowers.

Navient is fighting the consumer bureau’s lawsuit and has denied any
wrongdoing. It declined to comment on its tax debt collection efforts, referring
questions to the I.R.S. The other three collectors did not respond to questions about
their call scripts.

For its part, the I.R.S. said that it supported its private collectors’ tactics.
The agency “encourages people to look into options for paying their tax debt,
including things such as installment agreements,” Ms. Barreda said in a written
response to questions about the call scripts. “How they pay is a personal choice.
Giving taxpayers ideas of possible borrowing sources to pay their tax liability is
consistent with fair debt collection practices as well as I.R.S. practice.”

But Ms. Warren and the three other Democratic senators who sent the letter on
Friday — Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland and Jeff Merkley
of Oregon — took exception to these collections practices. They particularly criticized
the extended payment offers and the encouragement for debtors to send in “extra
payments,” both of which they said violated the I.R.S. code.

The law “allows collectors to ask only for a payment in full, or an installment
agreement providing for full payment over a maximum period of five years,” the
senators wrote. “When Congress required the I.R.S. to hire private debt collectors to
collect certain tax debts, it did so under strict provisions to ensure that taxpayers
were not put at risk during the collection process, but it appears that Pioneer is not
adhering to these protections.”

The I.R.S.’s last effort to outsource debt collection was deemed a failure by the
agency, which eliminated the program in 2009 and said that its internal staff could
handle the work more efficiently. The program wound up costing the federal
government millions more than it actually recouped from taxpayers.

The latest attempt stems from a 2015 provision, buried in a $305 billion
highway funding bill, that required the agency to outsource some of its collection.
President Trump’s Treasury secretary, Steven T. Mnuchin, said his department
would monitor the effort.

“In general, I am supportive of using outside firms on a contingency basis after
all other means have been used,” he said at a congressional hearing last week. “I
think it’s a balance between making sure the government collects money efficiently
and appropriately with making sure we don’t jeopardize taxpayers.”

© 2017 The New York Times Company.  All rights reserved.

No comments: