Have you ever gotten a call from a debt collector? It could happen whether you actually owe money or not, because some businesses try to scare people into paying up.
Brandi Hughes said she almost fell victim phony debt collection threats.
"Once I hung up the phone and actually thought about it, I was like, 'No. This isn't right,'" said Hughes. "It didn't feel right in my stomach. I knew in my gut it wasn’t the right thing to do."
Dealing with debt is nothing new to Hughes. She had some rough times over the last few years.
"I have been through a divorce and went through some financial issues a few years ago, so to have a debt hanging over my head is not unlikely," she said.
However, because of fear and intimidation, Hughes said she almost paid money she didn't owe to a Los Angeles-based collection company called The Lincoln Group.
The company began calling her and seemed to have some accurate information about Hughes and her debt. But some things they told her didn’t add up.
The Lincoln Group was trying to collect under Hughes’ married name, which she changed five years ago after the divorce. The company claimed she opened a JCPenny account in 2008, while Hughes believes she opened it in 2013.
“It definitely felt like they knew pieces of her information because it seemed like it came from her credit report,” said Linda Frischkorn, Hughes’ mother.
What they knew about Hughes was enough to make her a target for what she and her mom believed was an illegitimate debt collection.
“They gave me the account information and said that it was about $1,100 and change, and that it was going to cost me total about $2,500 in legal fees, but if I wanted to take care of it right then and there, they would settle it for $607,” said Hughes.
The company threatened to sue, which made the collection attempts even more stressful and serious. However, Frischkorn, who used to be a debt collector, was suspicious.
“The Lincoln never sent us any paperwork and that, to me, is the red flag. If you don't mail something to my house, there is something wrong there,” said Frischkorn.
They contacted JCPenny directly and ultimately got a bill for $158, nowhere near the $1,100 the Lincoln Group said she owed. And the JCPenny account was being collected on by a company called Midland Credit Management, not The Lincoln Group.
When the Troubleshooters called the phone number The Lincoln Group provided Hughes, a man answered and said someone would call back. After two days with no call back, the Troubleshooters reached back out and got a message that said, “You have reached a number that is not currently set up to receive calls.”
However, we did hear from the California Better Business Bureau, which has six complaints on file about The Lincoln Group.
One complaint said the company was “trying to collect on a debt that had been paid five years ago.” Another said The Lincoln Group was “trying to collect on a $1400 Verizon bill. The complainant said Verizon told them the debt doesn’t exist.”
The BBB said it never received any response from The Lincoln Group and tracking them down is tough. A man who identified himself as the property manager at 633 W. 5th Street in Los Angeles, where The Lincoln Group leased office space, said the operation left unexpectedly about four months ago.
Meanwhile, it’s clear The Lincoln Group isn’t the only debt collection agency people have raised questions about here in Connecticut.
At the Connecticut Department of Banking, hundreds of residents have filed complaints just within the last year alone about debt collectors they feel are either scamming them or trying to collect on money they don’t owe. Either way, they are not willing to hand over their money without a fight.
Bruce Adams, acting Commissioner of the Department of Banking, said calls like the ones Hughes received are common and come from various collectors. He played some recordings for the Troubleshooters that he said could be problematic.
“I received the fact order regarding your civil complaint that was filed against you. I have been retained to serve you with documents to appear in court either at your residence or your place of employment,” said one caller.
Some collectors offer to settle the matter out of court and even give a case number.
“We will follow the proper protocol to serve you on your property. Again, the client is willing to rectify this matter if they hear from you today,” another debt collector said in a message. “This is our third and final attempt. Good luck in court.”
What's wrong with the calls?
“Well for one thing, some of those phone calls don’t ask for a person by name, so when you get a phone call that says were trying to collect a debt and they don’t tell you their name, that’s a big red flag,” said Adams.
Officials with the Department of Banking also said The Lincoln Group had no right to try to collect in our state, because the company isn't licensed here.
By law, collection agencies must:
- Be licensed and have a physical place of business in Connecticut in order to collect on people in this state
- Provide you with a way to find out if you actually owe the debt
- Tell you if the debt may be uncollectable due to a statute of limitations
Protect yourself by asking for the above information. You can also refuse to discuss any debts until you get a written validation notice.
Laws passed in 2013 impose the following restrictions:
- Prohibit collection agencies from purchasing claims for the purpose of collecting or filing a lawsuit
- Limit how long you can be sued on a debt
- Because of the age of your debt, debt collectors must inform you in writing that your debt has reached the point where they can no longer sue
Written notification should look similar to this:
"(INSERT OWNER NAME) will not sue you for it and (INSERT OWNER NAME) will not report it to any credit reporting agencies."
If you think you are the victim of an illegitimate debt you can contact the Connecticut Department of Banking at 860-240-8299.