5 Disturbing New Ways Debt Collectors Are Getting Your Money
For an entire generation of college graduates facing a job market with nothing but tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and frat party beer guts under their belts, the future is looking grim. Not only will your job at Bath & Body Works not be enough make your various loan payments, but now it looks like the people you owe money to are employing downright ugly strategies to get that money back from you.
Social Network Shaming
Just like your brokeass cousin always looking for a handout and your disapproving grandma, debt collectors have figured out how difficult it is to hide on Facebook. And they're using it as well as other social media outlets for some old-fashioned harassin'.
If you owe some money and are on Foursquare, debt collectors are tracking you. LinkedIn? Debt collectors are watching your employment status and sizing up your assets. Facebook? Those photos of you acting like a drunken idiot reminded them of how the money you're spending on those drinks could be put towards a payment plan. They'll be very glad to share those ideas with you ... on your wall.
How many of the people who "follow" you are actually following you?
Debt collectors are so stoked about their newfound stalker networks that they even had the balls to brag about it.
Melanie Beacham and Tosha Sohns know a thing or two about debt collectors infiltrating social network pages. Beacham made the mistake of getting sick, having to take a medical leave from work, falling behind on her car payments and having friends and family on Facebook who blindly accepted friend requests from a mystery man named Jeff Happenstance. After dozens of harassing phone calls in which the caller ignored her pleas that she was temporarily out of work and would resume payments as soon as possible, several of her friends and family began receiving messages on their Facebook pages from their new friend:
Was the winky smiley face really necessary?
Beacham filed a lawsuit against the collection agency.
Tosha Sohns, meanwhile, was treated to collection agency Bramacint who, despite a name that sounds like bro-speak, repeatedly used a caller ID spoofer to make it appear as though her mother-in-law was calling. The agency then used photos on her MySpace page to ascertain that she had a daughter. One of its employees proceeded to call her, claiming to be an investigator, and rhetorically asked her (presumably while doing a spot-on Hannibal Lecter impersonation), "Wouldn't it be terrible if something happened to your kids while the sheriff's department was taking you away?"
"We don't ship terrorists to Guantanamo anymore, ma'am. Only debtors."
The "investigator" and the agency soon found out how terrible it can be to get sued.
Pursuing the Families of the Recently Deceased
So, let's say you're newly dead. Now let's also say you left some debt behind, the kind that legally dies when you do. Just make sure your family is in on the whole "they don't have to pay your debt after you die" secret, because plenty of people will tell them otherwise.
"Satan doesn't have the balls to be a debt collector."
Companies such as DCM Services consider dead people to be the newest frontier in debt collections. One of the first things that new hires at DCM are trained in, not surprisingly, is the Kubler-Ross model, more commonly known as the Five Stages of Grief:
If you're unlucky enough to get a call from an agency such as DCM, you'll be treated to what it terms "empathic active listening," which mixes the "comforting air of a funeral director with the nonjudgmental tones of a friend." Empathic listening is all the rage in debt-collection circles right now. You know something is very wrong with the economy when the debt collectors are all excitedly abuzz over the strategy of actually being nice.
But like a serial killer on a bad day, a lot of the times the collectors calling the bereaved don't even bother with the courtesy of niceness. One widow claimed she was called 15 times over a six-week period after her husband's death, apparently crying her way through several of the calls. Another widow claimed DCM told her that it had the authority to put a lien on her house for her husband's unpaid debts. But the kicker was the woman who was called by DCM between 45 and 50 times in the four months after her son's suicide.
Stay classy, debt collectors.
"I have to take three bars of Xanax every morning just to make it in to work."
Targeting Soldiers at War
There are probably a lot of words that pop into your head when you hear "deployed soldier." Brave. Patriotic. And if you're a predatory lender or debt collector, "cash cow."
Most of us think of military personnel in the same vein that we think of public school teachers and whoever coaxes pandas into having sex: as heroic and underpaid public servants. So it takes a uniquely gifted breed of douchebag to look at a soldier in the thick of battle and see dollar signs. According to Holly Petraeus (the Mrs. to this Mr. and director of the military program of the Better Business Bureau), military personnel are easy targets for all sorts of cheating chicanery.
"If he can afford that fancy fake arm, he can afford his car payments."
Why? Because unlike the rest of us, wading our way through the recession with our boring-ass desk jobs, people in the military have guaranteed paychecks and great job stability and are subject to strict military rules concerning unpaid debts.
Also, they have the habit of being too busy getting shot at to answer their phones.
Not only are collectors not sympathetic to the special financial circumstances regarding soldiers at war, they've created entire departments to take advantage of those circumstances.
"The horns are actually part of the uniform."
And this is in spite of a law created to protect these exact service members. For example, Sgt. Bernhardt Rupprecht found that his 2004 Dodge Neon had been repossessed by Bank of America after he missed a payment while he was on duty in Iraq. He actually called Bank of America on a satellite phone while in an Iraqi combat zone to haggle over his car's repossession, asking if the bank would be so kind as to deduct the late payment from his military pay. Bank of America, the same organization getting a $25 billion bailout from the U.S. government, refused to let the soldier apply his military salary to his car payments.
Meanwhile, one collection agency targeted thousands of military personnel by calling their family members and threatening arrest by military police and dishonorable discharge if they didn't pony up on old debts. Neiman, Rona & Associates didn't just call the families of military members, either -- it sometimes called their commanding officers.
Because soldiers deployed in a combat zone don't have quite enough shit to deal with.
Collectors were told to pose as members of the Department of Justice, lawyers, whatever it took to get people to pay, whether they owed it or not. All of this financial targeting of servicemen got so out of hand that the Department of Defense actually labeled the entire situation a freaking threat to national security in 2006.
Jacking Your Ride
On the one hand, you know it's got to suck to be the guy tracking down cars for repossession. You're always the bad guy, and you face belligerent deadbeats daily. On the other hand, today's repo man has heaps of tools at his disposal to get the job done, including GPS tracking devices hidden in vehicles for precision repossession and remote ignition cut-off technology for late car payments, which seems cool until somebody misses a payment while driving through Deliverance territory.
"Is that banjo music?"
Turning off your phones to avoid collectors won't help you if they've got repo 2.0 gear on their side. Some are using cameras with automatic license-plate-reading software to scan as many plates as they can, then matching images to a deadbeats database. Once you're found, the jig is up.
Even sneakier are the car dealers who slip GPS devices into the cars they sell, just in case someone goes into default on his payments. The subscription-based-tracking service will not only locate the car for the dealer but will also keep delinquent drivers from driving with a remote "starter interrupt" feature.
And by ... other methods.
Where will you be when your car stops working? Parked at a hotel with your family 300 miles from home? Taking a sick kid to the emergency room? Who knows?! Mommy should have made her payment, kid!
Pretending to be The Law (While Terrifyingly Breaking It)
In 2008 and 2009, thousands of people across the U.S. were called by law enforcement officials and ordered to make payments on their debt or face jail time. In one case, a couple in Texas came home to a message from the police department warning them that officers were en route to their home at that very moment regarding an unpaid debt.
"That's right, sir. We're basically mercenaries now."
The couple was expecting twins, so they fled their home in terror. But these calls weren't coming from law enforcement officials. They were coming from several debt-collection agencies posing as the police. And this is the man who was the CEO of those debt-collection agencies:
Pictured: CEO "Bags of Money." His self-chosen nickname, as well as what he extorted.
His real name is Tobias Boyland, and besides being the author of a book titled Thug Motivation and a convicted AK-47-touting felon currently on the run, he was also a small-business owner. Specifically, a debt-collection business. It turns out it's not all that hard for anyone, Bags of Money included, to buy himself a giant portfolio of old debt and account information and do with it what he pleases.
Trickery and the threat of violence are a pretty powerful combination, but at least Bags of Money had the integrity to be thoroughly evil from the get-go. When Kim Mitchell got in over her head debt-wise, she contacted her lawyer for help. What she didn't know was that her debt collector did a spot-on lawyer impersonation, which he used to convince her to borrow from her 401(k), skip the mortgage on her house for two months and ditch her electricity bill to put together the debt money. All sound advice, when your counsel is coming from the devil.
"Have you considered prostitution? It's a great way to make quick cash!"
Well, at the very least, we all have our day in court, right? This is America, after all. No debt collector could take that away from us. This is probably exactly what a number of people in Erie, Pa., thought after they were summoned to court. The only problem? Debt collectors had actually invented the entire courtroom. Unicredit America dressed employees up as sheriffs, hired an attorney to draft fake hearing notices and decorated a room near its offices to look like a real courtroom, replete with fake spectator seating, a fake witness stand, tables and chairs for attorneys and defendants, bookshelves full of legal texts, a bench for the judge and, of course, one of the agency's employees dressed up to play that judge.
The good news in this case, though, is that justice did miraculously prevail in the end, when the entire debt-collection terror troupe was shut down, booked on criminal charges and brought before a real federal judge themselves. The bad news is that, for the rest of us, facing off against debt-collectors in a real court may actually be almost as bad, since the debt collection industry basically owns small circuit courts in sleepy little podunk towns such as Boston and Chicago.
Plus, there's the fact that in 2009, the FTC went ahead and declared the entire American debt-collection litigation system to be broken, to which dozens of Bags of Money's victims declared, "YOU THINK?"
The Federal Trade Commission: Stating the obvious, long after it could have done any good.
Jason Edward Harrington is a former debt collector and current freelance writer. He has blogged at www.absenteedaddy.com and www.jasonedwardharrington.wordpress.com.
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