In response to charges from the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court has halted an operation that the agency alleges collected phantom payday loan debts that consumers either didn’t owe to the defendants or didn’t owe at all. The defendants’ scheme involved more than 2.7 million calls to at least 600,000 different phone numbers nationwide, according to the FTC. In less than two years, they fraudulently collected more than $5.2 million from consumers, many of whom were strapped for cash and thought the money they were paying would be applied to loans they owed, according to FTC documents filed with the court.
The court order temporarily stops the illegal conduct and freezes the operation’s assets while the FTC moves ahead with the court proceedings and seeks refunds for consumers.
As part of its continuing crackdown on scams that target consumers in financial distress, the agency charged Tracy, California-based Kirit Patel and two companies he controls with violating the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).
Often pretending to be American law enforcement agents such as “Officer Mike Johnson” or representatives of fake government agencies like the “Federal Crime Unit of the Department of Justice,” callers from India who were working with the defendants would harass consumers with back-to-back calls, according to the FTC. One consumer reported that the caller threatened to have her children taken away if she did not pay, according to court documents.
Another consumer told the FTC, “The callers threatened me and claimed they would arrest me if I didn’t pay them the alleged debt. One of the callers even contacted my neighbors and told me he was watching my house.”
The case is strikingly similar to another action announced by the FTC earlier in the year, although the defendants’ names are different. The FTC did not note that the two cases were related.
In difficult economic times, consumers may turn to high-interest, short-term payday loans between paychecks. The FTC alleges that information submitted by consumers who applied for these loans online found its way into the defendants’ hands. Because the callers had this information – which often included Social Security or bank account numbers – and because many of the victims already were in a tenuous financial situation, they often believed that they owed the defendants the money, according to the FTC. In some cases, when consumers made the allegedly bogus payments, they had nothing left over to cover legitimate expenses: Two mothers reported that they could not buy Christmas presents for their families after making payments on the phony debts.
The defendants typically demanded several hundred dollars and, in violation of federal law, routinely used obscene language and threatened to sue or have consumers arrested, according to the FTC’s complaint. They also threatened to tell the victims’ employers, relatives, and neighbors about the bogus debt, and sometimes followed through on these threats, the FTC alleged.
Once victims were pressured into paying, the callers instructed them to use a pre-paid debit card such as a Wal-Mart MoneyCard, another debit card, a credit card, or Western Union so the money could be deposited into one of the defendants’ merchant processing accounts, the FTC alleged. Even after victims made a payment, the harassing calls often continued, forcing them to change their phone numbers, or close their credit cards or bank accounts in an effort to get the calls to stop, according to documents filed with the court.
The FTC alleged that of the $5.2 million the defendants collected, almost $1 million was returned or charged back by their merchant processor, resulting in consumer injury totaling more than $4.2 million.
The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by:
- misrepresenting that they had the authority to collect on supposedly delinquent loans that consumers owed, they were a law enforcement authority or were affiliated with a government agency, and that consumers would be arrested, imprisoned, or sued; and
- using obscene or profane language, and calling consumers repeatedly with the intent to annoy, abuse, or harass them.