The abuses of rogue collection agencies in Western New York have been public knowledge for years and, now, something has been done about them. Thirteen companies have been shut down and had their assets seized as part of a new lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission.
The reports of intimidation, abuse and out-and-out lies are shocking and suggest that the FTC’s action is, if anything, belated. The companies, all but one of them in Amherst, Cheektowaga, Lockport or Niagara Falls, employed about 30 people and, according to court papers, collected and processed millions of dollars over the past three years.
But it’s not the mere collections that are the problem. Some people don’t pay their debts and legitimate collection agencies are a normal part of resolving those situations. The problem is in the way these operators worked, even – according to some reports – claiming that their targets owed money on debts that didn’t exist. Some misrepresented themselves as local, state or federal officials. The callers often threatened their targets with arrest, a lawsuit or the arrival of a process server or sheriff at their home or workplace.
One 43-year-old North Carolina woman filed an affidavit detailing a conversation with a “Mr. Wolfe” of Federal Check Processing over a $5,000 debt that she said didn’t exist. Even still, her affidavit reports, “Mr. Wolfe told me that I was the target of an investigation. He claimed I had committed bank fraud and I would be arrested if I did not pay the debt.”
Another woman said she was called by a representative of a company called U.S. Processing, claiming that her son, a war veteran, had written a bad check on an old account and could go to jail unless she helped pay it off. She paid $169 toward what turned out to be a fake debt, and later cried when she told her husband about what had happened.
Another person, from Austin, Texas, reported getting five or six calls a week for three to four months, as late as 10 p.m. Later, calls started coming to his wife at her office and even to one of her co-workers. Eventually the agency, Central Processing, started harassing his parents, both in their 80s.
This month it ended, at least for now. U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny of Buffalo issued a temporary restraining order against the companies. In addition, he appointed a receiver, Buffalo attorney William J. Brown, who recently took control of the companies’ operations. His job will be to determine if they can be operated lawfully and profitably.
The suit also identifies two individuals, Mark Briandi and William Moses, as principals in some of the companies. A lawyer for the defendants said the two men “did attempt to operate within the law, but we understand there are allegations that employees may have violated the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.”
This isn’t a problem unique to Buffalo. Last year the FTC received about 200,000 complaints about collections practices. That doesn’t mean Buffalo has to play host to leeches, though.
Whoever is responsible for bullying people over fictitious debts, possibly even swindling some, needs to be held accountable. Whatever the punishment may be, it should include reimbursing those who were tricked into paying phony debts. And if some people wind up in jail, that’s fine, too.