In this uncertain economy, millions of Americans are deep in debt. Some of them have been contacted by collections agencies. And while those calls can be unpleasant, sometimes, they can be a scam. It's important to know your rights and the questions to ask.
Undercover video captured Timothy Arent and his accomplice as they left a post office where they picked up checks from people who believed they were paying off debt. US Postal Inspectors started tracking the men for their suspected role in an elaborate debt collection scheme that targeted victims like Chris and Erin.
"One day I was at school… and I got a call on my cell phone from a police officer who said he had a bench warrant for my arrest, if I didn't call a certain law firm within the hour to pay an unpaid debt," Chris explained.
The couple called the law firm, which told them they needed to pay off a $4,500 debt immediately or Chris would be arrested.
"I didn't want an officer showing up at my work or my home… and I wanted to take care of it as quickly as possible. It wasn't fully sinking that this was a trick or a trap....I gave them my bank information, which I should never have done," said Chris.
"It was that fear and intimidation to come and take him away from his school, family, and children that caused him to act in a manner he never would have before," said Erin.
Arent illegally obtained lists of people who had recently paid off debt. He then called them and bullied them into believing they owed even more.
"They had paid their bills and they were targeted because they had demonstrated the ability to pay," said US Postal Inspector Shelley Carosella.
Postal Inspectors arrested Arent and found how he was spending the victims' money.
"Found many luxury items inside. He lived in a mansion and it was reminiscent of a museum, he had paintings, Tiffany lamp, he had grand piano, grandfather clocks, the furnishings were high end," said Carosella.
Consumers have rights: Debt collectors are prohibited from saying 'you will be arrested if you don't pay your debt,' they can not lie or falsely claim they are law enforcement or an attorney and they can not harass, oppress or abuse.
"It was very traumatic, very difficult experience for both of us financially and emotional level as well. We were definitely seeking retribution and seeking vindication making sure these people paid for their crimes because they are hurting people and we're one of them," said Chris.
Arent is serving a 12-year jail sentence and is under orders to pay $3.6 million dollars in restitution.
Advice from the Better Business Bureau on how to handle Debt Collectors:
The Better Business Bureau says it is important for consumers to verify their alleged debt before taking action. The BBB recommends doing the following:
Request written proof. Get documentation to help determine if the callers are identity thieves or if a debt is actually owed.By law, a debt collection agency must provide a validation notice within five days of contacting you about the debt. Within 30 days of receiving the validation notice, send the debt collector a written request to further verify the debt details. Do not provide personal or financial information unless the validity of the debt and the debt collector has been confirmed.
Verify the legitimacy. Ask for the debt collector's name and contact information to research the agency further. Cross-check their contact information and call them using a phone number from a public directory. Verify that the representative who called is affiliated with the agency. Also, visit bbb.org to view the agency's Business Review.
Stop phony calls. Be wary if the debt cannot be verified or if no documentation is received. Advise them to stop contacting you and register with the National Do Not Call Registry at www.DoNotCall.gov or 888-382-1222.
If you do not owe the alleged debt, BBB recommends doing the following:
Do not ignore the collector. It is best to respond immediately, even if you do not believe the debt is yours. Otherwise, the collector may continue contacting you or file a judgment.
Do not pay. Do not claim a debt that is not yours or make a payment on a bill just to make the collector "go away." Even just one payment can indicate that you are accepting the full responsibility of the debt.
Contest errors. If no debt is confirmed, contact any involved parties to clear up inaccuracies on your credit report. Write a detailed letter and include supporting documents to prove your case. The FTC provides additional resources for reporting errors.
BBB recommends doing the following for debt you do owe:
Know your responsibilities. It is not against the law for a debt collector or creditor to contact you regarding unpaid debts. Try working with them to resolve issues. Discuss developing a payment plan and request obligations in writing.
Complain about abusive practices. Report harassment, threats and other violations of federal telemarketing laws to the FTC. File a BBB complaint if you believe a debt collector is acting unethically. Review the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which sets standards for collection agencies and prohibits abusive tactics.
Stop collector calls. According to federal law, a debt collector cannot continue to contact you if you tell them to stop. Write a letter stating not to contact you anymore. Save a copy of the letter then send the original via certified mail and request a return receipt. If a debt is owed, the collector or creditor can still take legal action to collect funds and may contact you to inform you of their action.
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