Local 2 investigates abusive debt collectors. The Federal Trade Commission received a record number of complaints about debt collectors last year -- nearly 181,000. There are laws in place to protect you from collectors who go too far, but you may be surprised at who we discovered may be on the other end of the line.
"Currently there is an affidavit being filed against your Social Security number with the last four numbers ending with ..."
That's the way one of the messages left on Charisma Anderson's voice mail went. She remembers the call like it was yesterday.
"I felt very threatened. I felt stressed," Anderson said. "I couldn't get out of my head what this man said he could do."
Anderson says the man calling her from Cole, Tanner and Wright told her she could lose her job or go to jail if she didn't pay $1,400.
"I think they wanted me to panic," she said. "I think they wanted me to say 'Here, take the last of what I have. Just leave me alone.'"
Susan Schade of the Houston Better Business Bureau says complaints to the agency reveal a pattern of collectors with Cole, Tanner and Wright harassing, threatening and intimidating consumers over and over again.
"They're told that their driver's license could be taken away," Schade said, recalling some of the complaints against the collection company. "The person calling has said they're from the sheriff’s dept or they're a federal officer of some sort. Those are totally against the rules. The law says you can't harass people and you can't misrepresent who you are."
The collector who called Anderson said just enough to make it sound as if she would be charged criminally for an old debt she no longer owed.
"The affidavit is being filed under a priority 1 for willful evasion and theft of services," the collector said into her voice mail messaging system.
"This telephone call had a number of issues that raised a red flag," said consumer attorney Dana Karni.
She sued Cole, Tanner & Wright for the calls made to Anderson from an office building off Harwin. The business has since closed its doors, but the BBB says the owner, Gerald Wright, is still in Houston dealing in debt and is affiliated with a new collection company -- this time called Goldman, Schwartz, Lieberman and Stein.
"Unfortunately this company tends to move so much that we've gotten returned mail from the company," said Schade.
Gerald Wright didn't answer his door or return our repeated phone calls, and the most recent address for Goldman, Schwartz, Lieberman & Stein is actually to a UPS Store where the company has a post office box.
His attorney told us the case with Anderson has been resolved, but the terms of the settlement restrict him from discussing the details.
"I don’t even know who these people are," Anderson told Davis. "And they have your personal information, banking information."
Anderson refused to provide the collectors with any new information and that may have been a smart move. We discovered the woman listed as the Operations Manager at Cole, Tanner & Wright and the Director at Goldman Schwartz is a convicted thief. She served 5 years probation for welfare fraud. In Texas, there is no criminal background check required for collectors who amass the personal financial information of hundreds of consumers.
"Paying somebody over the phone when you don't know what you're paying and what you're paying for, and you have no confirmation in writing, you might as well take your money and throw it in the trash," said Karni.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act says that collectors must send you something in writing within 5 days of their first call to you that explains what you owe and the details of the debt. If you're not sure you owe a debt, be careful not to pay any amount until you're certain. Paying a small amount on an old debt could restart the clock, meaning you could open yourself up to a lawsuit on a debt that was too old to collect anyway.