When Marilyn Johnson’s husband died, she couldn’t afford the entire bill for the funeral, leaving her with an unpaid debt of $2,142 to the funeral home. The bill went to a debt collector, and soon Johnson found herself facing a judge in a courtroom.
By then, Johnson owed $4,047 in debt plus fees, the judge said. Johnson had a choice. Either pay the money now, or go to prison.
To prevent that, Johnson’s son, Howard D. Johnson III, signed over the title to his car, a green 2002 Chevy Cavalier, to Unicredit America Inc.
“If I didn’t come up with the title to my car, they were going to put my mother in jail,” Johnson told the Erie Times-News.
Later, he discovered some disconcerting untruths: The “judge” wasn’t really a judge. And the court was just a regular office, converted to resemble a courtroom. Johnson and his mother had been duped by Unicredit, an Erie, Pa.-based debt collection company that ran the fake courtroom as a scam to intimidate people into paying their debts. Lawrence D’Ambrosio, Unicredit’s lawyer, told Johnson and his mother they were in Superior Court and the woman at the front of the room, dressed in black and seated on a high bench, was a judge.
[Resource: Top Ten Debt Collection Rights for Consumers]
“No one has seen anything like this before,” Johnson’s lawyer, Andrea Amicangelo, told Credit.com. “I had the opportunity to see the courtroom in operation, and in fact it looked nicer than some of our real district courtrooms. Some of our courtrooms are in strip malls, so it wouldn’t be unusual for an individual to go someplace that doesn’t look like a courthouse.”
Now Johnson is asking a real judge to give his car back. Unicredit America faces a lawsuit by the Pennsylvania Attorney General for fraud, intimidation and impersonating law enforcement officers. In addition to the fake judge, Unicredit allegedly sent people dressed up as sheriff’s deputies to drive to debtors’ homes and deliver fake summonses, as we reported here.
Unicredit President Michael Covatto, who did not appear at Unicredit’s previous court hearing, attended a hearing this week in Erie County Court, according to this Times-News report.
Image: Jonathon Narvey, via Flickr.com