Regulators crack down on aggressive and dubious debt collectors

NEW YORK (AP) – These mysterious debt collectors who call insisting you’ll be in legal danger if you don’t pay them big bucks are themselves in hot water, accused in a nationwide crackdown on harassing and threatening consumers, often about debts that don’t actually exist.

The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday highlighted enforcement actions filed in recent months against two South Carolina-based debt collection companies accused of stealing from people totaling $ 17.2 million, as well as settlements. with three other companies accused of using pressure tactics and other shady practices. .

Ironically, companies that have agreed to financial settlements have not been able to pay the full amounts.

While consumer complaints about debt collectors have declined slightly since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, the commission’s chief consumer protection officer Andrew Smith predicts that will change as debt collectors are increasingly targeting people facing financial difficulties related to the crisis.

Of more than 85,000 debt collection complaints from consumers this year, the FTC said nearly half involved debt that did not exist or abusive and threatening practices.

“That would be roughly when it started – when we would start to see consumer complaints associated with the financial hardship caused by the pandemic,” Smith said. “These could be debt collection complaints; it can also include complaints about various credit repair or debt relief, mortgage relief and debt settlement organizations.

The commission, together with other federal agencies and authorities in 16 states, is also launching a campaign to give consumers advice on what to do when faced with a debt collection appeal. It includes a tip sheet with potential red flags, such as a collector refusing to provide their business name, amount of debt, or original creditor.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who joined a conference call about the initiative, dubbed Operation Corrupt Collector, offered candid advice to seniors who are often seen as easy benchmarks for dubious dialers.

“Seniors, as I always say, have a right to hang up and be rude,” said James. “Most seniors are not rude, but when it comes to individuals engaging in illegal behavior, they should hang up and report the collector to the FTC immediately.”

James’ office was involved in two of the three settlements described in the crackdown. The two Buffalo-area-based companies were permanently excluded from the debt collection business under deals reached in December and February.

One of the companies, Hylan Asset Management, was ordered to pay a judgment of $ 6.75 million, but that amount was reduced to just $ 676,575 due to an inability to pay. The owner of the other company, Campbell Capital LLC, had his judgment of $ 1.7 million reduced to $ 30,000.

In the two pending South Carolina cases, filed in July, authorities obtained temporary restraining orders shutting down the companies’ activities, freezing their assets and placing them under the control of a receiver.

National Landmark Logistics LLC and Absolute Financial Services, LLC, both based in Fort Mill, South Carolina, are accused of using deceptive robocalls and tricks, such as claiming to belong to a mediation firm or lawyers rather than a debt collector, threatening legal action and using a target’s personal information to make the threats appear real.

According to the FTC, National Landmark Logistics LLC made more than $ 12 million through the tactic, while Absolute Financial Services LLC made more than $ 5.2 million. In many cases, the commission alleges that National Landmark Logistics was not entitled to collect the debt it sought or that there was no debt to collect in the first place.

An attorney for National Landmark Logistics LLC declined to comment. A message requesting comment was left with an attorney at Absolute Financial Services LLC.

Naomi C. Amerson