PORTLAND, Ore. - It sounded like a legitimate offer of debt collection services offered for a reasonable fee. But it was a scheme that made one man rich while driving hundreds of others into financial ruin. Colby Stafford was one of those victims.
"When you're my age, you think you are reasonably street savvy, the answer to that is, no I wasn't," said Stafford.
Stafford learned a hard lesson about trust when his business lost $10,000 in this telemarketing scam.
"At that point in time I was growing so fast, which is a good thing, but you're spending all your cash," he said.
So, Stafford took out a $50,000 loan to have more money readily available. But that loan left him vulnerable to telemarketers calling with a pitch.
"The telemarketers cold called prospective clients and promised for a fee they would collect their business debts," explained US Postal Inspector Camille Hammonds.
Inspectors says the owner of the debt collection agency, Neil Madison, used some strong-arm tactics.
"He threatened to take them into involuntary bankruptcy, to take away their homes their vehicles, and to see that they were criminally charged with fraud," said Hammonds.
Investigators say Madison was ruthless in getting the money. But instead of returning it to business owners as promised, he kept it all for himself.
"The funds were used to buy a yacht, numerous luxury vehicles, a house in Laguna Beach, California, occasional prostitutes for top employees," Hammonds said.
As part of his scheme, Madison created promotional flyers, including something called a Tricon Report, which supposedly showed a debtor's ability to pay.
"In reality, the report was totally bogus and made up," said Hammonds. "The Tricon Report was an inside joke known to the employees as, 'We will try to con the client'."
For some time, the con was successfu and Stafford and more than 600 other victims lost more than $6 million. Those victims included business owners who thought they had paid off their debts to other companies and others who thought the money they were owed had been collected.
"There were numerous small Mom and Pop American businesses who were forced out of business," added Hammonds.
Eventually, Madison was caught and sentenced to 8 years in prison, but Stafford believes Madison could have made his money without cheating other people.
"If you work that hard at something, my God, I pay a lot of money to people who work hard for me. Why don't you come work for me? You're working so hard to con people, and by the way if you come and work for me you don't have to go to jail," he said.
Postal inspectors say always carefully check out every company you do business with. The State Attorney General's office or the Better Business Bureau are good references for finding information about all companies.
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