Have you ever gotten a call from a debt collector that just didn’t seem right? Perhaps the caller claimed to know more information about you than he could otherwise get from a piece of paper, or belittled you merely with the tone of his voice. Did the person threaten you, or evade your request to speak to someone else, or to see documentation of your alleged debts?
Inappropriate and illegal debt collection practices run rampant in the United States, with collection agencies either hired by companies unable or unwilling to collect on the debts themselves, or buying the debt from the companies. Collectors then have close to free reign to swoop in and use a whole host of questionable tactics to try to get their money.
In Ozone Park, a woman with two small children was repeatedly harassed with “fat jokes” by a debt collector who somehow knew she was overweight. The collector may have personally surveilled the individuals whose money he pursued, a practice that crosses into stalking, and thus illegal, territory. The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, has been reluctant to leave her home, for fear that the debt collector is watching her every move.
With the holidays approaching, the Better Business Bureau warns consumers to be vigilant about potential scams and fraudulent conduct. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, does not specifically prohibit debt collection on holidays, though it does disallow communication with consumers “at any unusual time or place or a time or place known or which should be known to be inconvenient to the consumer.”
The Federal Trade Commission receives more complaints about debt collection than any other single industry, regularly bringing enforcement actions against fraudulent collectors. In 2013, defendants settled and paid a $3.2 million civil penalty — the largest the FTC had obtained in a case alleging violations of the FDCPA, which in 1996 amended the Consumer Credit Protection Act to prohibit abusive practices by debt collectors.
Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and the Assistant Director of the New York office of the FBI announced the unsealing of a complaint charging Williams, Scott, & Associates of Norcross, Georgia, along with six of its employees, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with a nationwide debt collection scheme. Having purchased the debt of their victims, the collections agency is alleged to have targeted more than 6,000 people throughout the United States, coercing more than $4.1 million in direct payment to their agency.
Under the guise of government authority, the collections agents are said to have threatened arrest and prosecution, calling themselves investigators and/or lawyers insodoing. In fact, the agency was not a legitimate law firm, nor was it legitimately affiliated with any government entity. Inventing a variety of purported crimes, the employees of Williams, Scott, & Associates told consumers that, unless they remitted immediate payment, warrants would be issued for their arrest. At times, the agency even sent victims correspondence containing the seal of the U.S. Department of State, claiming that it was “a Division of the Federal Government Task Force.”
Scripts recovered from Williams, Scott contained numerous misrepresentations, false threats of criminal charges, and various other falsities. The FBI also recovered computers containing recordings of calls to the victims. In one conversation, a woman who asked for customer service was told she was “on the way to jail.” The victim responded that she was eight months pregnant and didn’t want to go to jail, whereupon the Williams, Scott employee said, “I wouldn’t care if you were nine months pregnant.”
If you believe you were a victim of the Williams, Scott, & Associates crime, the U.S. Attorney’s office encourages you to contact the Victim/Witness Unit for the Southern District of New York, at 866-874-8900. If you wish to report a crime by another debt collector, you may contact the FTC at 877-FTC-HELP. The Federal Trade Commission website, www.consumer.ftc.gov, has helpful tips to dispute fraudulent charges and stop calls and letters from debt collectors, including a sample letter that can be customized to suit your needs.
In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website, www.consumerfinance.gov, provides five sample letters tailored to certain frequent consumer debt collection issues. The site also specifically and in detail defines “harassment by a debt collector,” and provides an online form to submit a complaint, as well as a link to state attorneys general, another venue to file a grievance. To submit a complaint to the CFPB over the phone, you may call 855-411-CFPB. There are numerous other online sources for submitting complaints or finding further information: fraud.org, the Better Business Bureau, and scambusters.org, to name a few.
By Eugénie Bisulco