The home-based business market, sometimes called the SOHO (small-office / home-office) market, is booming. As more and more B2B businesses expand into these markets, they may find themselves walking a fine line between B2B and B2C.
Why is this important from a legal standpoint? Federal debt collections laws tend to treat business and consumer debt collections – even small business debts collections – quite differently. Why should you even care about the issues of small business debt collection law if you are not a collection agency? Simple: the line between billing and collections is just as thin as the line between home-based self-employed entreprenens and private consumers.
Home-Based Business Debt Collection Laws
Essentially, there are much stricter protocols for handling consumer collections than there are under business debt collection law. The Federal consumer collection law is best encapsulated in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The essence of the law is to prevent harassment. But in practice, compliance is not quite so simple. The law has a long list of things you can not do, including disclosing the debt to a third party or threatening legal action without intending to. How can the FDCPA get you into trouble with home-based business owners?
Possibilities for Ambiguity in Home Business Debt Collection
Fran's company sells paper stock to use in making business cards and business mailings. Her company only markets to businesses. Dave, a home-based business owner who bought some paper stock, has failed to pay for his most recent order. Fran calls the number Dave has on file, which is home file. Dave's daughter answers the phone, and Fran leaves a reminder for Dave to pay the outstanding invoice. Did Fran just break the law?
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act says that a consumer debt may not be disclosed to a third-party under any circumstance, unless the third party is an attorney or credit bureau. Dave's daughter is neither. So, Fran has broken the law if Dave is a consumer. But she has not broken the law if Dave is a business. After all, how is Fran supposed to know that Dave's daughter was not a staff person?
The scariest thing about this hypothetical is that whether Dave is a business or a consumer is entirely out of Fran's control. If Dave used the cardstock for business cards and promotional post cards, it would seem that Dave's a small business; collection laws do not apply. If Dave used the cardstock for his daughter's art project, he is a consumer, not a small business; collection law does apply.
Can You Exempt Your Business from Debt Collections Laws?
Of course, if Dave had explicitly presented himself as a business when ordering, how he used the cardstock might not matter. Sometimes Fran's company could have protected itself by requiring customers to state whether they are businesses or consumers at the time of purchase.
Of course, the above discussion should not be taken as legal advice. It's not even a very careful consideration of the legal issues of small business debt collection law. But the fact that Fran's simple task of reminding a customer of an invoice requires careful legal consideration at all is a wake-up call.
In short, B2B businesses that take on home-based business customers have added a new level of compliance: consumer vs. small business debt collections law. They've also found a new reason to outsource their accounts-receivable to a dedicated accounts processor and collection agency.