Reporting from Washington —
Federal regulators warned of a new scam in which so-called phantom debt collectors harass people into paying bills they don't even owe, typically preying on Americans already burdened with financial problems.
Officials said Tuesday that they had shut down a Villa Park operation that they alleged in a lawsuit fraudulently collected about $5 million in phantom debts. In a lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission, a court froze the assets of American Credit Crunchers, an affiliated company called Ebeeze and their owner, Varang K. Thaker.
The FTC alleged that the companies used callers in India, who often posed as law enforcement officers or other government officials, to threaten people with arrest, a lawsuit or the loss of their job if they didn't repay online payday loans.
But the companies did not make the loans and had no right to collect the money, the agency said.
A phone number for American Credit Crunchers was not working Tuesday, and its website had been shut down. Thaker did not return a call seeking comment.
Since at least January 2010, Thaker's companies somehow obtained personal information from the loan applications and used it to try to collect money, the agency said. During one eight-month period, the companies made 8 million calls to consumers seeking repayments of debts.
In some cases, they called people who applied for loans but didn't take them out. Still, the threatening calls, in some cases purporting to be from the fictitious Federal Department of Crime and Prevention, intimidated people into paying money to avoid arrest or embarrassment, the agency said.
"This is a brazen operation based on pure fraud," said David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Under federal and state laws, legitimate debt collectors must provide people with written notice of the amount owed, the names of creditors and the debtors' rights, the agency said. It issued a warning on its website about the fake debt collectors.
But the warnings came too late for JanLaree DeJulius of Las Vegas.
She was called in April 2010 by someone claiming to be from the Federal Government Department of Crime and Prevention and demanding repayment of a $763 payday loan her ex-husband had received a few months earlier. The loan already had been paid off.
The caller said that if the loan wasn't repaid immediately, DeJulius would be arrested at her workplace, her wages would be garnisheed and an expensive lawsuit would be filed, she said. The caller had a lot of personal information about DeJulius, including her Social Security number and date of birth, she said.
"It was intimidating enough that I didn't want to go through that. I said, 'I'll pay you whatever it takes,'" DeJulius said in an FTC news teleconference Tuesday.
She set up an installment repayment plan that allowed American Credit Crunch to charge her credit card $163 in June 2010 and to take $120 more a few weeks later with the notation DebtCollect on her account.
A few months later she got another call seeking additional money, and then heard a news report about fake debt collectors. Her credit card company reimbursed her for the $163 payment.
She then got a voice mail in August 2010 on her home, work and mobile phones from a person identifying himself as Officer Black of the Bureau of Crime Identification, who warned her she would face "severe legal consequences," including arrest, if she did not call back. DeJulius said she ignored the calls.
"They're scum," she said of the companies. "They're not going after anybody who has a lot of money.... It seems like they go after the most vulnerable."
An archived version of the American Credit Crunchers website said it was a nationwide debt collection agency. "Persuasiveness, persistence and professionalism are the standards our collectors and attorneys pride themselves on," the website said.
The Online Lenders Alliance, a trade group for Internet payday lenders, has issued a consumer alert warning people about fraudulent debt collection scams.
The alliance said it has been working with federal, state and local authorities to stop the scams, which in some cases involved callers claiming to be celebrities, such as Denzel Washington and Steve Martin.
"Scam artists pretending to be legitimate debt collectors or law enforcement officials are terrorizing consumers, causing unsuspecting victims to lose thousands of dollars, in direct violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act," the alert said.