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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Debt-Collection Fraud Starts With the Basics

We know that the debt-collection industry played a major role in electing Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts, and that's largely because the industry opposes health-care and consumer-protection reforms.

So its appropriate that we take a critical look at an industry that is trying to flex its political muscle on the national stage. My wife and I have filed a lawsuit against two debt-collection outfits--Pennsylvania-based NCO and the Birmingham-based law firm Ingram & Associates--alleging multiple violations of the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act (FDCPA), along with various state-law claims.

Waging that lawsuit has given us considerable insight into how the debt-collection industry operates. And over the next few weeks, we are going to be sharing our insights with Legal Schnauzer readers. We would encourage anyone who has a credit card, and that's a lot of folks, to tune in.

We will begin today with Lesson No. 1: Debt-collector fraud can begin with the most basic issues.

Our case started with a debt I allegedly owed to American Express. (The card allegedly was in my name.) Court documents indicate that AMEX placed the alleged debt with NCO, which made several collection efforts. NCO then placed the alleged debt with Ingram & Associates, a firm that is part of something called the "NCO Attorney Network."

Ingram & Associates made multiple phone calls to my wife and me, violating the FDCPA on multiple grounds--and we recorded these conversations for posterity on audiotape.

What do we mean by fraud "on the most basic issues"? Well, a rational person might think, "If I was going to try to collect a debt, I would make sure that I had documents in hand that proved the person actually owed the debt."

But that apparently is not the way debt collectors think. Based on our experience, they will try to collect a debt, even when they have no idea whether you owe it or not.

During the discovery process in the lawsuit, our attorneys (Darrell Cartwright and Allan Armstrong), made a number of simple requests that produced stunning replies from the defendants.

Our No. 1 request for production of documents from Ingram & Associates asks for the following:

Each and every document relating to any debt, allegedly owed by plaintiffs to American Express or NCO, including, but not limited to, any cardholder agreements signed by the plaintiff.

In other words, just show us the documents you have that prove Roger Shuler owes the debt--and that Roger Shuler signed a cardholder agreement with American Express. Sounds simple, right? Here was the response from Ingram & Associates:

Ingram & Associates does not have any documents from American Express.

Now let's digest that for a moment. Ingram & Associates called me and repeatedly said they had "been hired by American Express" to sue me. They repeatedly said that I owed a debt, and they could garnish my wages or have our house sold on the courthouse steps to satisfy that debt. (You will be hearing audiotapes of these conversations.) They called my wife and talked to her for roughly an hour, even though she had nothing to do with the alleged debt. All of these are violations of the FDCPA.

But Ingram & Associates had no documents from American Express proving that I owed the debt! They didn't even have a cardholder agreement showing I ever had an American Express card, much less one for which I owed a debt!

Now let's consider NCO, the folks who hired Ingram & Associates. No. 28 in our request for production of documents from NCO reads as follows:

A copy of any and all documents which you allege create an obligation by the plaintiffs for the account you are attempting to collect.

It couldn't be more simple. Just show us the documents upon which you base your allegation that Roger Shuler owes a debt to American Express. Here is the answer:

NCO objects to this request to the extent plaintiffs are seeking documents outside NCO's custody or control. Notwithstanding said objections, none.

Now let's digest that for a moment. NCO sicced Ingram & Associates on us because I allegedly owed a debt to American Express. But when asked to produce documents from American Express that show I owed the debt, NCO says they don't have any.

I see two trends here:

* NCO and Ingram & Associates initiate debt-collection procedures when they have no proof that the target owes the debt or even has an agreement with the alleged cardholder.

* NCO and Ingram & Associates are determined not to produce any documents from American Express.

Hmmm, wonder why that is? Could it be that American Express and its surrogates practice such fraudulent tactics against consumers all over the country? Is it possible that these tactics unlawfully generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year for AMEX and its surrogates? Is that why NCO and Ingram & Associates appear to be trying to protect AMEX at all costs?

While we ponder those questions, here is a document that will give you an inside glimpse at the game of hide-and-seek that transpires when you try to get the truth out of a debt collector. It's a copy of Ingram & Associates response to our discovery requests:

Ingram Discovery Response

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