When a Birmingham collection law firm called me about a debt I allegedly owed to American Express, I posed a question to one of the collectors that you probably would have wanted answered in such a situation, too.
Collectors from Ingram and Associates repeatedly told my wife and me that American Express had hired them to sue me. As a "courtesy," they were giving me an opportunity to settle the alleged debt via telephone, but their primary job was to file a lawsuit.
So I posed this question to a collector named Jann Blalock: Who can I speak with from American Express--an attorney, an account executive--about this account on which you claim I owe?
That seemed to flummox Ms. Blalock, but I could not understand why. She told me that American Express had hired her boss, Alabama lawyer Angie Ingram, to sue me. So I thought my question was a natural: Who from the company had authorized such a lawsuit, and could I speak with them?
Ms. Blalock's response. "As far as giving you a name and a phone number, I'm not going to do that." (See video at the end of this post.)
In the course of filing a lawsuit under the U.S. Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), I found out why Jann Blalock made that response: She and her coworker, Tracy Mize, had lied to me. American Express did not hire Ingram and Associates; in fact, the Ingram firm, we later discovered, had no information about any amount I owed or that I even had an AMEX card. A Pennsylvania debt-collection outfit called NCO had hired the Birmingham firm, and Angie Ingram belongs to something called the NCO Attorney Network.
Why did members of Angie Ingram's law firm tell this blatant lie on multiple occasions, violating 15 U.S.C. 1692e, which states in part:
A debt collector may not use any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt.
The answer seems obvious to me: Debt collectors don't want to file a lawsuit and go to court because they often don't have the information required to prove a case. The only way they often can win in court, contrary to Jann Blalock's words, is if the alleged debtor fails to appear, giving the creditor a default judgment.
Rather than go through that hassle, collectors would rather intimidate you over the phone into paying money that you might not owe--and that they almost certainly cannot prove you owe. Intimidation is more likely to succeed if they drop the name of a big, scary company you have heard of (American Express), as opposed to using the name of a company (NCO) that probably is unfamiliar to you.
Here is a Legal Schnauzer tip: If you ever hear from a collection law firm that is threatening to sue you, ask them for the name and phone number of the individual from the alleged creditor that authorized such a lawsuit. You probably will get a runaround answer like the one I received from Jann Blalock--and that's because the creditor likely has not authorized the law firm to sue.
If you tape record the conversation, you probably will catch the collector in a multi-pronged violation. For one, it is a violation of the FDCPA for a collector to threaten action it cannot legally take--or has no intention of taking [15 U.S.C 1692e(5)]. In our case, Ingram and Associates could not sue without authorization from American Express--and the firm clearly did not have it.
Also, it's a general rule of most state bar associations, that a lawyer or law firm cannot threaten action that it cannot legally take. In my state, it is covered under Rule 3.1 of the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct ("Meritorious Claims and Contentions"). Under Rule 5.3 ("Responsibilities Regarding Non-Lawyer Assistants"), Angie Ingram is responsible for Jann Blalock's false statements.
That means Angie Ingram should be subject to discipline from the Alabama State Bar. If you hear from representatives of a debt-collection law firm, the chances are good they will violate both the FDCPA and your local ethics rules.
You can check out how an Alabama firm did just that in the video below:
Previously in our series:
Tape Recordings Nail Debt Collectors In Flagrant Violations Of Federal Law (Part 1)
Tape Recordings Nail Debt Collectors In Flagrant Violations Of Federal Law (Part 2)
Tape Recordings Nail Debt Collectors In Flagrant Violations Of Federal Law (Part 3)
Tape Recordings Nail Debt Collectors In Flagrant Violations Of Federal Law (Part 4)