Managing Debt

How One Man Got Even With a Debt Collector… in Court

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Kevin Jones just did what he felt was right, but you might think of him as a hero once you hear his story.

When Jones was hassled by debt collectors to pay a bill he didn’t owe, he did more than tell them to get lost. He sued — and got $1,000 and a whole lot of satisfaction. Here’s how.

Jones, 53, provided to Credit.com an amazingly detailed record of events related to his lawsuit, which was filed in a Cook County, Illinois federal court. The first troublesome phone call came in 2007, but the formula he used to exact sweet revenge on the debt collection firm would work equally well today.

The call came on a Thursday night in November, said Jones, who lives in Evanston, Ill. It was an automated call; he didn’t answer, but he did call back.

“Representative said she was looking to collect a debt for Sprint. I told her they had the wrong person, that I’ve never even had an account with Sprint. She asked if I lived on Mulford, a street in Evanston, and I said no but didn’t say where I do live,” according to his notes.

Kevin Jones

Kevin Jones

Jones hung up with the uneasy feeling that call wouldn’t be the end of it. But he also knew his rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, thanks to an earlier bout with identity theft issues, so he took a critical action that would trigger those rights almost immediately. He sent a letter the next day via certified mail to the collection firm saying. “You have the wrong Kevin Jones…I hereby order you and all employees and agents…to immediately cease and desist all communication with me.”

While getting calls from a collections firm can be a disturbing, or even a harrowing, experience, consumers actually enjoy a series of strong protections under federal law, and for once, that law has teeth. Collectors who violate provisions of the law can be sued $1,000 for each violation under certain circumstances. A phone call after receipt of a cease and desist letter usually qualifies as such a violation.

Two days after Jones mailed the letter, an employee at the firm signed for the letter, and soon after Jones had the return receipt in his hands. Both a copy of the letter and the return receipt are attachments in Jones’ lawsuit complaint, which Credit.com reviewed.

Not the End, But the Beginning

Then, the “fun” began. Five days later, Jones says the phone started ringing off the hook. Nearly every day, there was another collection call, usually between 5 and 8 p.m. For two straight weeks, the calls followed the same pattern.

“The calls … are automated. When you pick up the phone, you get a recorded message telling you to hold for a representative. Several times I’ve held, hoping to speak with someone, but the call has gone to a busy signal,” Jones wrote in his notes. “The afternoon calls differ from those in the evening. The afternoon calls begin with an automated voice telling you to press one if you are ‘Kevin . . . Jones.’ The evening calls begin with an automated voice that says ‘We have an important call for you.’ ”

Then, almost two weeks to the day after the first call, the confrontation escalated after a collection agent hassled Jones’ wife on the phone.

“I called back and explained that (the firm) has the wrong person, that they have received and signed for a cease-and-desist letter, and that all subsequent calls have been violations of federal law. The representative I spoke with, ‘John,’ merely laughed and tried to belittle me,” Jones said. “Curiously, he said that my knowing the name of someone in their office was not proof that they’ve received a letter from me. Also, when I sarcastically suggested that maybe I’m the only Kevin Jones in the world, he said, ‘yeah, maybe you are.’ ”

Jones hung up and started looking for lawyers. He ended up with Chicago firm Edelman Combs, which regularly takes consumer law cases. The firm filed a case almost immediately.

Even the lawsuit didn’t stop the calls, however, which continued for about a month. In the last entry of Jones’ notes, he warns a collection firm caller that he’s only making things worse.

“I called back to ask why they had called. Guy asked if I lived at 250 Mulford St. I said no, never have. He asked if I have a son. I said none of his business! I said it was surprising they were still calling, given that they have received two cease-and-desist orders and were served two weeks ago with a lawsuit,” Jones’ notes say. “He asked for the name of my attorney and I, not knowing if it was appropriate to give it, told him they’d know soon enough and hung up.”

For the next three months, Jones’ lawyer and the collection firm swapped motions in court. The collection firm, in its “answer and affirmative defense,” admitted to making the phone calls and receiving the cease and desist letter, but said it “denies that it engaged in unlawful credit or collection practices.” It then asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the calls were an honest mistake.

“Bona Fide Error/Inadvertent Error. Defendant attempted to collect what it believed was a legally owed debt,” the case reads. “It has procedures and mechanisms in place to assure that it only collects debts that it can verify as being due and owing. To the extent [the firm] attempted to collect a debt from Plaintiff that was not legally due and owing, such action was the result of a good faith mistake, which actions are immune from suit.”

Finally … the End

Two months and two dozen court filings later, Jones got what he wanted: A settlement from the collection agency that cost it real money. Jones got $1,000 and his lawyers got $3,500 in legal fees, according to attorney Dan Edelman, who worked on Jones’ case. We don’t know how much the collection firm had to pay its own attorneys in the case, but it wasn’t about the money, Jones said.

“I would gladly do it again, not for the money, but because these people are slime who abuse and exploit people who don’t know how to defend themselves,” he said. “While I was defending myself, I followed various forums on the subject, and I was appalled at how many elderly people are victimized. It’s sickening.”

Because the offense took place in 2007, we aren’t mentioning the name of the firm Jones sued. We did contact the firm and offer it a chance to comment for this story, but it did not respond. We were able to find record of dozens of similar federal lawsuits against the firm filed in 2014, many with similar allegations.

Edelman, who specializes in consumer debt cases, said it’s important that consumers know their rights when contacted by debt collectors. Roughly one-third of Americans have at least one account in collections, according to a recent study, meaning debt collections will remain a big business for many years.

“There are increasing number of collectors out there,” Edelman said. “And only a small fraction of the cases that could be brought against them are filed.”

If This Happens to You

Edelman offered suggestions to consumers, starting with Jones’ smart use of certified mail, and his excellent record keeping. In addition, he said consumers should always immediately insist on getting evidence that the entity calling has the authority to collect the debt, and has justification for the amount. Increasingly, he said, scam artists obtain lists of consumers from debt collectors and try to talk the consumers into sending money — with no intention of applying any payments toward the debt owed.

In addition, plenty of collection firms with proper authority fail to justify additional fees and penalties, so proof of the debt and the amount owed is essential.

“Often you have no idea if (a debt) is genuine,” he said. “In many cases we find debts are inflated. And there are all sorts of fees that are questionable.”

Consumers should also make the collections firm confirm the age of the debt. State laws vary widely, but in every state, creditors have a limited amount of time — known as the statute of limitations — to sue for alleged unpaid debts. The statute of limitations usually ranges from 3 to 10 years, depending on the type of debt and the state, after which the debt is considered “time-barred.” It’s usually best to enlist legal help — free from a legal aid office or the state attorney general’s office — to determine if a debt is time-barred. Consumers must invoke their statute of limitations rights to defend themselves.

Paperwork is also critical for consumers who send payments to debt collection companies. They sometimes fail to properly credit consumers, or to honor verbal agreements to accept partial payments. Edelman has seen debt collectors demand payment on debts even after consumers believed they have agreed to a settlement payment that was supposed to satisfy the debt. Debts can have a lasting effect on consumer creditworthiness and can drive up interest rates on future loans. You can check your free credit reports yearly at AnnualCreditReport.com and you can check your credit scores for free every moth on Credit.com.

Jones came forward, he said, because he’s concerned that not enough consumers know their rights under the law.

“I wish to help because I became aware, while taking on this company, that there are many people out there who are victimized by debt collectors but don’t know how to defend themselves,” Jones said. “I was outraged but felt helpless to spread the word that it’s possible to fight back. … I hate to think of someone like my elderly father having their lives made a living hell by these predators.”

This is part of a series of articles about people struggling with debt collection. If you have a story for the Debt Collection Files, write to Bob Sullivan at Bob (at) credit (dot) com.

More on Managing Debt:

Main image: iStock; inset image courtesy of Kevin Jones

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

  • Chuck

    I had a debt collector contact me repeatedly, by mail, for a $6.32 bill that was alleged to be a medical copay. Because I had in my possession all three receipts for the 25.00 copay I made at each of the three medical visits I knew absolutely that I did not owe any money.
    My policy clearly stated that I was obligated to pay only a $25 copay and nothing else. The provider knew this also.
    Well, I decided to see how often this debt collector would waste THEIR time and money on postage, letters,printer costs to try to closest such a paltry sum.
    The letters came regularly for almost one year.
    I never responded because I did not owe the debt.
    Finally, the agency began calling me, again wasting .their money for this party sum.
    I did speak with them but stated clearly that I did not owe any money. The calls continued.
    Finally, I simply laughed in their face on the phone and stated that they were simply the most pathetic excuse for humanity I had ever encountered……….spending far more of their time and money trying to collect this bill than the amount of the bill. I asked if they had nothing else to do with their time.
    Finally, I did tell them that I had receipts for each of the visits to my provider and that at each visit I had paid my copay in full. I gave the caller the receipt numbers and suggested she might waste more time and money now verifying these payments with the provider. I then suggested they try to collect the money from the medical provider who knew full well I had paid my bill. I was laughing hysterically by the end of the call, as the situation was so preposterous. REALLY???? For $6 this woman invested endless hours of her time. How pathetic is that? I did say this other also.
    Me thinks she was embarrassed at the obvious display of cheesiness she had made.
    Needless to say,she stopped calling. But…….I had fun with the situation and wasted as much of her time and resources as possible.

  • http://consumerrecoverynetwork.com/ask-a-question/ Michael Bovee

    It is generally true. Once you pay something toward a debt with an expired SOL, you reage the SOL for them to legitimately sue you to collect more.

    For recourse, I would first look to consult with an experienced consumer collection law attorney. You can search for one at http://www.naca.net.

    Are you able to raise enough money to get close to that 1k they are asking for?

  • Sandi

    Due diligence wins in the end!!!

  • http://consumerrecoverynetwork.com/ask-a-question/ Michael Bovee

    Not sure why any attorney would lose her cool over something like this. It is not like it was her debt.

    Settling is often going to be the most cost effective and time saving method to resolve a situation like yours.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    Andrea,

    That doesn’t sound right at all. My understanding is the statute of limitations for most consumer debts in Texas is four years. It sounds like this debt is too old. You can send the debt collector a certified letter telling them that you believe this debt is time barred and asked them not to contact you again.

    If they persist, you have several options. One is to contact a consumer law attorney who may help you for free because if the debt collector is breaking the law and have to pay your attorneys fees. (You may also be entitled to $1000 in statutory damages.) Visit NACA.net to find one if you want to go this route. The other option would be to file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And in Texas there is a good organization that may help:
    Texas Consumer Complaint Center

    • andrea

      Thank you so much! I’m going to try this!!!

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