Are debt collectors likely to violate certain provisions of federal law more than others? Based on my experience, the answer is yes.
We identified those provisions in a previous post. If you ever hear from a debt collector, you might want to be on alert for these unlawful tactics. Using transcripts from my conversations with collectors, we will give you a "blow by blow" account of how consumers' rights can be trampled. (See transcripts at the end of this post.)
My advice is to tape record any conversation you have with a debt collector. We heard from what you might call "high-end collectors," representing a company called NCO that is owned by JPMorgan Chase, the nation's largest bank. If collectors representing one of the largest private corporations in the world act like thugs, you can rest assured that those from the lower end of the "profession" will behave the same way.
Here are three provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) that are perhaps most likely to be violated. The language of the statute can get somewhat highfalutin, but we will spell it out in everyday terms, with citations to the actual law. Then we will pull quotes from the transcripts to show exactly how collectors violated the law:
Collectors cannot communicate with anyone other than you about an alleged debt, except to seek information about your location (15 U.S.C. 1692b and 15 U.S.C. 1692c).
In our case, it was undisputed that the alleged debt to American Express was in my name only, so my wife, Carol, was a third party, under the law. The collectors, Tracy Mize and Jann Blalock of the Birmingham law firm Ingram and Associates, could talk to her only to seek information about my whereabouts. Instead, they talked to her for more than an hour, gathering 14 pages of notes about our personal financial situation. All of this was unlawful, as the transcripts spell out. Here is one example, from Transcript No. 1:
Tracy Mize: Yeah. We just want to know if you’re willing to make payment arrangements and I discussed with Carol some of those options, but she was too shaky and I didn’t feel confident that she was—okay, I gave her some information on if she felt you needed to refinance the house. . . .
Why might my wife have been "shaky"? Oh, I don't know, maybe it was because Mize told her that Ingram was going to sell her house "on the courthouse steps," over an alleged debt that did not involve her. That would make me shaky.
Here's another example from Transcript No. 3:
Jann Blalock: I probably have 14 pages of notes on your account right now at this time. Okay, the first time that I got involved with it was last night when your wife went absolutely hysterical. When she called in and said you were cutting the grass, and we need to know what was going to be done and said this, that and the other.
First, my wife did not call them, they called her; their own records show that. Second, if the Ingram firm offers any training at all to its employees, Mize and Blalock had to know these "14 pages of notes" were unlawfully obtained from a third party to the alleged debt. Did that stop them? Nope.
Collectors cannot lie to you in an effort to collect a debt (15 U.S.C. 1692e).
The discovery process in our lawsuit showed that the Ingram law firm was hired by NCO. Gregory R. Stevens, an NCO vice president, admitted that in an affidavit. Angie Ingram herself admitted that in an affidavit. And yet, Ingram's employees repeatedly told us they had been hired by American Express. That is the kind of "false and misleading" representation that is prohibited under the FDCPA. But Ingram employees tried it over and over again. Here is one example, from Transcript No. 2:
Jann Blalock: There's not anything that we can do, we have a fiduciary relationship with American Express. We represent them . . .
Sir, all we have to do with you is that we have been retained by American Express to collect a debt.Was that true? No. Was it unlawful to make a false statement to an alleged debtor? Yes.
Collectors cannot insult you in an effort to collect a debt (15 U.S.C. 1692d).
The Ingram collectors made regular use of insults. They claimed I was conducting a "witch hunt" by pointing to misconduct by lawyers that had tarnished our financial standing. They also said I was "playing schemes," by pointing out that Angie Ingram, under the ethics rules of her profession, had a duty to report misconduct by fellow members of the bar. Tracy Mize acknowledged that her boss had such an obligation, but said she was not going to fulfill it. (See Transcript No. 1.) Here is an example of one insult, from Transcript No. 2:
Roger Shuler: Well, I've been called a witch hunt, and I've been called everything else, and I'm getting sick of it. Do not call me at work.
Jann Blalock: Okay, you need to find a different horse to ride, sir. This one is not going to work with us, okay?
Here is another example, from Transcript No. 2:
Roger Shuler: Well, you need to quit calling me at work and you need to quit calling me at home if you are going to act this way. I've--
Jann Blalock: I'll call you about a debt? I'm not interested in playing any schemes, okay?
If you possess a credit card, or ever buy anything on credit, you probably will hear someday from a debt collector. You might not owe the debt, and they almost certainly will not be able to prove you owe the debt. But they are likely to use unlawful tactics in an effort to milk it out of you anyway.
The tactics are on grim display in the following transcripts:
Ingram NCO Transcript1
Ingram NCO Transcript2
Ingram NCO Transcript3