A New Barrier: the Least-Sophisticated Consumer & Language Barriers

A New Barrier: the Least-Sophisticated Consumer & Language Barriers
by Sasha Lemon

A majority of federal court circuits have adopted the least-sophisticated consumer standard in analyzing Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) claims. The least-sophisticated consumer standard is to ensure that the FDCPA protects gullible as well as shrewd consumers. Creditor Rights advocates have had to contend with this standard, which essentially lowers the burden for a consumer, for years. Although the standard provides deference to the consumer, it is still fairly objective; it merely asks whether the least sophisticated consumer would have been misled by the actions of the debt collector.

The CFPB, however, has indicated that more subjective characteristics may need to be evaluated. Specifically, the CFPB is interested in consumer populations with limited English proficiency (LEP).[1] In November of 2013, the CFPB reported that approximately 34 million Americans speak Spanish at home.[2] Approximately 10 million of those speakers speak English less than “well.”[3] This group represents the largest linguistic population with LEP in the United States. Recently, the CFPB explained “many people struggle to understand consumer financial products and services. These struggles can be compounded by language barriers, and can make some populations prime targets for exploitation.”

In response to this realization, the CFPB has created a website geared to the LEP population. Spanish speaking consumers can find answers in plain-language Spanish at consumerfinance.gov/es. Additionally, the CFPB and the FTC announced a joint roundtable entitled, “Debt Collection and the Latino Community,” on October 23, 2014.[4] The roundtable will bring together consumer advocates, industry representatives, and state and federal regulators to discuss and address the debt collection and credit reporting issues faced by the Latino community.[5]

[1] CFPB Considers Debt Collection Rules, CFPB (Nov.6, 2013), http://www.consumerfinance.gov/newsroom/cfpb-considers-debt-collection-rules/.
[2] Language Use, United States Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/language/
[3] See generally id.
[4] Zixta Q. Martinez, Save the Date, Long Beach, CFPB (Oct. 9, 2014), http://www.consumerfinance.gov/blog/save-the-date-long-beach/.
[5] Debt Collection & the Latino Community Roundtable, Federal Trade Commission (Oct. 9, 2014), http://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2014/10/federal-trade-commission-consumer-financial-protection-bureau.