Is Georgia a haven for abusive debt collectors?

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Getting threatened with arrest. Being called a dirt bag. Having your neighbor tell you that debt collectors want you to pay up. Such debt collection tactics are banned under federal law. In spite of the bans, various Georgia firms have been accused of employing such methods.

And a new report shows that Georgians being harassed about debts are filing a record number of complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

In many cases, the complaints concern debts people already paid or do not even owe, the bureau says.

It received an average of 383 complaints from Georgia residents in a three-month period this fall, up from 252 a month for the same period in 2015. That increase is second highest in the nation by percentage, CFPB says.

The Georgia complaints concern companies operating in various states. But in recent years a number of firms based here have been accused of abusive debt collection practices. Here are highlights, city by city:

Alpharetta: The core tactic of a network of companies in Georgia and New York was to threaten consumers with dire consequences, including arrest and imprisonment, unless they  immediately made a payment on alleged debt over the phone, according to a federal lawsuit. The 2015 suit, which is still pending in U.S. District Court in New York, accuses Alpharetta-based Check Fraud Service LLC, doing business as Check Services and CFS & Associates, of being part of a scheme connected to 4 Star Resolution. Among other abuses, the lawsuit said that a representative calling himself “Detective Jeff Ramsay” would claim he was seeking to serve a bench warrant on a consumer for check fraud. Federal officials also said that collectors would call consumers dirt bags, idiots, dummies, piece of scum and worse. A court has frozen assets of the companies with a preliminary injunction. This past November, two New York men who operated Check Fraud Service and other companies accused in the scheme pleaded guilty to criminal charges. A pre-trial conference in the civil case is set for Jan. 19.

Atlanta: Federal authorities last year accused an Atlanta firm of terrifying people into paying debts, including some they did not owe, by using profane language, calling at all hours and impersonating law enforcement officers. To avoid detection in Georgia, federal officials said the firm operated under several corporate names and locations, including National Payment Processing. In September, the companies were permanently banned from the debt collection business and ordered to pay a judgment of more than $4.4 million.

Other Atlanta cases: After RSB Equity Group was accused of threatening consumers with arrest and imprisonment, among other violations, in 2015 it entered an agreement with the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection that stopped it from collecting some $13 million in debts. In 2014, a permanent injunction was issued against several Georgia firms accused in a federal lawsuit of being part of a scheme with Pinnacle Payment Services to defraud consumers. The defendants were barred from debt collection and had to pay a $9.3 million judgment.

Buford: Georgia shut down Zenith Financial Group LLC in 2015 and ordered owner Earnest Earvin IV to stay out of the debt collection business for five years. The company was accused of threatening consumers with arrest and physical violence if they didn’t pay up.

Duluth: Humphries & Associates, which has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau, allegedly threatened consumers with legal action it couldn’t take and harassed people about debts too old to collect. Federal authorities got involved, and in 2015 the company entered an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance with Georgia. It didn’t admit to violations but said it would abide by legal requirements.

Fairburn: Nelson, Hirsch & Associates and owner Tanya Santiago in 2011 entered an agreement with the Georgia Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection to resolve charges that it had harassed and deceived consumers. Among the allegations was that employees would call consumers 50 times a day. Under the agreement, the company was required to shut down.

Marietta: After law firm Frederick J. Hanna & Associates and its three principal partners were accused by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau  of operating an illegal debt collection mill, the defendants agreed in late 2015 to an order that resolves the case. That order bars the firm and its principal partners from illegal debt-collection practices, including filing lawsuits without being able to verify the consumers’ debt is owed and intimidating consumers with deceptive court filings. The firm and its principals were also required to pay $3.1 million to the Bureau’s Civil Penalty Fund.

Norcross: Late last year, a Georgia man was sentenced to five years in prison after being accused in New York of victimizing more than 6,000 people nationwide through his Norcross debt collection firm. Among the violations, prosecutors said, were over-collecting on loans and routinely using fraudulent practices, such as telling customers they could face arrest if they didn’t pay. John Todd Williams, aka Joe Steele, whose firms were Williams, Scott & Associates and Warrant Services Association, was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. In court documents, prosecutors said that Williams orchestrated the “brazen scheme” from about 2009 through April 2014, telling “outrageous lies to victims” to collect about $4 million. The government also noted that Williams had multiple prior criminal convictions, including for robbery, fraud, assault, DUI and drug-related offenses. He was ordered to forfeit about $4 million as well as property on Wyntree Drive in Norcross and on Milton Terrace in Atlanta.

Roswell: In a 2015 lawsuit, the Federal Trade Commission accused The Primary Group, dba Primary Solutions and PSA Investigations, of engaging in deceptive and unfair practices in almost every facet of dealings with consumers. The suit says that the debt collection business, led by CFO Gail Daniels and CEO June Fleming, was “founded on the practice of falsely convincing consumers that a debt collection lawsuit has been, or will soon be, filed against them and will result in dire consequences unless the consumer pays Defendants promptly.”  This past summer, a court barred the defendants from the debt collection industry.

Tucker: In 2015, the CFPB sued Universal Debt & Payment Solutions, alleging that it used fly-by-night companies to collect phantom debts. Among the defendants was Mohan Bagga of Georgia, said to have organized the Tucker company, along with New Yorker Marcus Brown, the company’s registered agent. The federal agency said the company harassed people with threatening robo-calls in attempting to collect debts they didn’t owe. The scheme brought in millions, the suit says. Other companies named in the suit included S Payment Processing & Solutions LLC, an Atlanta firm. A preliminary order froze the companies’ assets, but the cased is still pending in U.S. district court in Atlanta. In a court filing last week, one defendant  called the CFPB’s case a farce and accused government attorneys of abuses of power.

An FTC spokesman said that despite the number of cases, there is no evidence that Georgia is a haven for abusive debt collectors. However, the agency in 2015 chose Atlanta as one of the cities where it held “debt collection dialogues” with collection companies and law enforcement. You can read about that by clicking here: http://investigations.blog.ajc.com/2015/11/03/atlanta-showdown-debt-collectors-face-regulators-and-the-public/

 


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