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.
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:
- The Credit.com Debt Management Learning Center
- How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt
- Top 10 Debt Collection Rights
Main image: iStock; inset image courtesy of Kevin Jones