BUFFALO, N.Y. – New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced the filing of felony charges against the owner of a debt collection company that targeted military personnel and harassed active members of the military and their families.
The investigation led to the filing of criminal charges against Stephanie Lowinger of Anderson Place in Buffalo, owner and operator of Neimen, Rona & Associates, formerly Morgan, Stone & Associates and now known as Gordon, Cappolli & Associates, all debt collection companies based in the Buffalo area. In addition to the criminal charges, the Attorney General has also filed a civil lawsuit seeking to shut down Lowinger’s operation and secure restitution, penalties, and costs. The action is the latest in Attorney General Cuomo’s ongoing probe of illegal practices in the debt collection industry.
Attorney General Cuomo’s investigation found that Lowinger specifically targeted military personnel, referring to their alleged debts as “special accounts.” Lowinger instructed employees to find out where the military members were stationed and identify their commanding officers. Lowinger had employees threaten to call and, in some cases, actually did call the commanding officers, both of which are illegal debt collection tactics.
According to a former employee, Lowinger also contacted the military personnel’s family members in order compel them to pay, another illegal tactic. In addition, the investigation uncovered that Lowinger falsely told military members or their families that she worked for the Department of Justice and illegally demanded immediate payment. She allegedly said that if payment was not made immediately, the active duty family member would be arrested by the military police and would face a dishonorable discharge.
“This individual is accused of operating her businesses in a lawless fashion, instructing her collectors to do anything necessary to collect on an alleged debt, even if it meant harassing and threatening members of the military and their families,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “We will continue to investigate debt collectors who try to take advantage of unsuspecting individuals facing hard economic times and we will bring them to justice.”
Among the allegations detailed in Attorney General Cuomo’s court papers, Lowinger and her collectors:
- Falsely claimed to be lawyers, investigators, detectives, and mediators
- Threatened consumers with arrest, jail, and lawsuits
- Threatened to seize the assets of consumers
- Inflated the amount allegedly owed
- Attempted to collect debts from consumers not knowing if the consumer actually owed the debt
- Targeted family members of consumers, wrongfully disclosing the existence of alleged debts to family members, and attempted to collect the alleged debts from family members
- Harassed consumers through repeated and constant calls, using abusive language
- Levied unauthorized charges on the credit card accounts of consumers
According to court papers, Lowinger operated Morgan, Stone & Associates out of 1211 Hertel Avenue in Buffalo beginning in May 2009. After complaints began to mount, she shut down and then reopened as Neimen, Rona & Associates using the same address, contact information, and even the same logo. In the fall of 2009, Lowinger moved Neimen, Rona & Associates to 255 Great Arrow Avenue, and in August 2010, changed her business name to Gordon, Cappolli & Associates. Despite the appearance of being different companies, all three firms are controlled by Lowinger.
The Attorney General’s Office, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) have received dozens of complaints regarding violations of law by the Lowinger operation. The BBB has given Lowinger’s businesses an “F” rating.
Attorney General Cuomo’s lawsuit seeks to permanently shut down Lowinger’s debt collection businesses and require restitution to those defrauded, as well as penalties and costs to the state. Lowinger and her companies are charged with Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree (class E felony). The maximum penalty for the charge is 4 years in prison.
Military service members can be vulnerable targets for abusive debt collection practices since their status, rank, or security clearance can be adversely affected. Complaints already received and evidence uncovered during the investigation show that military service members and their families were subjected to wrongful practices, including:
- Unauthorized calls to commanding officers
- Threats of arrest by military police
- Threats of a dishonorable discharge
- Threats of loss of security status
- Threats of court martial
The civil case against Stephanie Lowinger and Neimen Rona & Associates is being handled by Assistant Attorney General James Morrissey and Senior Consumer Fraud Representative Karen Davis under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General for Regional Affairs J. David Sampson. The criminal case is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Paul McCarthy under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Richard Ernst and Bureau Chief Gail Heatherly of the Criminal Prosecutions Bureau.
The charges against the defendant are merely accusations and she is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.