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Debt Collector ‘Boiler Rooms’ Threatened Arrest, FTC Says
The voicemail would be enough to give anyone chills.
“Hello, this is Detective Jeff Ramsey. I am attempting to touch bases with (you)… I will be back out to your place of residence … between the hours of 4 and 6 p.m. You are to have two forms of identification, no firearms or narcotics or loose animals on the premises. This is concerning allegations in correlation to check fraud.”
There was no Detective Ramsey, or a need to put away the dogs – but there were many consumers around the country who sent money to a set of debt collection companies operating near Buffalo, N.Y., after being told they would be arrested, alleges the Federal Trade Commission in a lawsuit filed against the Four Star Resolution collection agency. In two separate lawsuits filed recently against Four Star and Vantage Point Services LLC, the FTC and New York State Attorney General’s office says consumers paid $45 million after such threats. Both firms have currently suspended operations because of a temporary restraining order. The lawsuits offer a glimpse into a world the FTC describes as “boiler rooms” where collection agents would allegedly say or do almost anything to motivate consumers to pay up.
During a similar call cited in the FTC’s lawsuit against Vantage Point Services, the collector warned a consumer in Whatcom County, Wash., to put away the dogs or children, lest they get harmed during a coming arrest.
“Please make sure that if there are any large dogs or firearms on the premises, they’re out of the immediate harm’s way of myself and the uniformed officer…(and) have adequate supervision for any minor children in the home,” the lawsuit alleges.
The phone number listed for Vantage Point Services listed with the Better Business Bureau was not accepting calls.
Linda Joseph, an attorney representing Four Star, said the FTC did not give the firm the opportunity to defend itself before essentially shutting it down with the temporary restraining order.
“We believe there has been a very serious violation of due process,” she said.
In the Vantage Point Services lawsuit, the FTC alleges that consumers were told they could face extradition from their homes for alleged debts, some agents warned. One was allegedly told he would be extradited from Florida and jailed in Michigan under a recent bill signed by Florida Governor Rick Scott. In another case, a collection agent told a consumer working in South Korea as a civilian administrator for the Air Force that they would be arrested and extradited back to the U.S. to deal with a debt, the FTC said.
The threats were made more believable by liberal use of caller ID spoofing, the FTC claims. One consumer living in Franklin County, Ohio, was told she would have to turn herself in regarding felony charges — and the call appeared to have been placed from a phone number at the courthouse. Another consumer received calls that appeared to come from a district attorney’s office in Texas, the FTC alleges.
Consumers targeted for collection weren’t the only ones who received the intimidating calls, according to the FTC. The lawsuit alleges that one target’s mother was contacted and told “if her daughter did not make a payment, Defendants would process a warrant that day and have the daughter picked up, handcuffed, and imprisoned for a minimum of 120 days.” In another case referenced in the suit, a work supervisor was called. And in still another example, a friend was called and told a sheriff would be visiting the victim’s house because the consumer had committed “identity theft” by using the friend’s information to write a “bad check.”
The FTC and New York Attorney General claim Vantage Point Services used many different business names, including names of fictitious law firms and actual government entities. Vantage Point Services also placed calls using more than 500 phone numbers, the suit claims.
One claim against Four Star alleges that an operator simply said to a consumer, “It’s the government you’re messing with!”
There was also a wide variety of name-calling: Consumers were called “f—ing no good liar,” “idiot,” “dummy,” ”piece of scum,” “thief,” “dirtbag,” “scumbag,” or “loser,” the lawsuit alleges.
Two Four Star employees signed affidavits this week attempting to persuade U.S. District Court to allow the firm to resume operations, saying that the firm had hired a compliance officer and was already working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Better Business Bureau to improve its operations. Joseph provided the affidavits to Credit.com.
“I understand that portions of my business need improvement,” said Travell Thomas, an owner. “But I also believe that Four Star — a company devoted to hiring minority, disabled and veteran employees — should be afforded every opportunity to show it has responsible employees.”
Ronald Williams, the compliance officer at Four Star, objected to the FTC’s description of the firm as a “shady debt collector,” and said he had worked to train employees to stay on the right side of the law — employees at the firm has signed notices warning them that impersonating government officials was against the law, for example.
“(I’m) not pretending that Four Star’s operations did not have problems that need to be improved upon, but debt collection is a difficult business,” he said.
In the Vantage Point Services case, the temporary restraining order issued in January against the firm has been extended while both parties argue over imposition of a permanent injunction. The temporary restraining order in the Four Star case has been extended until May 8, according to the FTC; Joseph, Four Star’s attorney, said she was filing a motion to reopen the business this week.
FTC’s Spotlight on Debt Collectors
The FTC has stepped up prosecution against debt collectors operating against the law — the agency filed a record number of Fair Debt Collection Practices Act lawsuits in 2014. Partly because of the attention those lawsuits have attracted, the number of complaints against debt collection firms have also soared — from 205,000 in 2013 to 280,000 in 2014.
The kinds of practices alleged in these two lawsuits follow a script of tactics banned by theFair Debt Collection Practices Act. It’s illegal for collectors to misrepresent who they are, to impersonate law enforcement and to use intimidation tactics such as threatening arrest. It’s also illegal to contact third parties (without the consumer’s explicit consent or a court’s permission), and to refuse to provide supporting documentation when consumers request it, as occurred in many of these collection attempts, the lawsuits allege.
“Today’s action should make it clear that nobody is above the law, and when shady debt collectors engage in illegal and abusive business practices, they will be held accountable,” said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “The use of threats, including the threat of arrest, to collect debts is unconscionable, and I am pleased to partner with the FTC to stand up for consumers against these bad actors.”
Consumers who are contacted by a debt collector should immediately ask for verification of the debt — paperwork supporting the alleged debt. If an agent refuses, you may file a complaint with the FTC and your state attorney general’s office. If the firm continues to contact you, you may send a letter demanding that it ceases contact with you. A series of sample letters for dealing with debt collectors are available at the CFPB website.