New York's attorney general said Tuesday he is trying to shut down a debt collector whose employees used outrageous tactics in several states, such as threatening to sexually attack one debtor's daughter, berating people as drunks and deadbeats, and bullying others with threats of arrest.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced the lawsuit against the Benning-Smith Group for what he claims are more than 1,000 violations of state and federal law in New York alone. He said his staff has also spoken to people from Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas who claim they were victims.
Cuomo said he is chasing more than 850 complaints and is suing at least 13 debt collection companies with separate names operated under the Benning-Smith Group.
"They did everything they could to demean and humiliate their targets, stooping so low as to sexually harass and verbally abuse individuals nationwide," Cuomo said.
In an answering machine tape that Cuomo provided to The Associated Press, an unidentified collection agent told a New York grandmother of seven in 2006: "You are totally ghetto. ... Learn English; get an education instead of just sitting on your fat derriere all day long."
The caller then insulted her pronunciation of "plan" and called her an "uneducated reject. ... Get a real job, get an education and learn to take care of your responsibility like a grown adult would."
The call was over a $182 debt that the woman, 50-year-old Dorothy Gilbert, of Rochester, had paid more than a year before.
"I know I didn't sleep for a couple of nights," Gilbert told the AP on Tuesday. "What if it was a person who couldn't take that kind of talk? Or someone with a bad heart or mentally imbalanced or very depressed?"
Gilbert said she still keeps the receipt for the paid debt under her mattress, just in case.
Cuomo spokesman Richard Bamberger said the office hopes to shut down the operation so it can determine how many states the company operated in. Cuomo is working with the Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau, which also received complaints, he said.
One collector repeated the name of a consumer's daughter and described sexual attacks he would commit against her unless a debt was paid, Cuomo said. Other collectors called consumers drunks, deadbeats and in one case a low-life piece of trash; one allegedly told a woman he would pay the debt himself if the consumer and her husband would have sex with him, the attorney general said.
An attorney for the Benning-Smith Group didn't respond to a request for comment. The company operators didn't respond to requests for comment left at one of the companies, Brady & Caruso in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst.
In June, Cuomo obtained a court order shutting down the fraudulent activities of a Buffalo-based collection racket and initiated criminal charges against the owner of that operation.
He has shut down two other debt-collection agencies and is suing two others for collection practices and what he said were unkept promises in debt-repayment plans.
Cuomo said the Benning-Smith Group operates as Abrams, Burke & Associates; Benning and Smith Acquisitions; Brady and Caruso; DebtPayments.com; Fredericks, Goldstein & Zoe; Graham, Noble & Associates Bookkeeping; Graham, Noble & Associates LLC; Graham, Beagle & Associates LLC; Kingman, Cole and Associates LCC; Marshall and Ziolkowski Enterprise LLC; Marshall Ziolkowski Acquisitions LLC; Lansky, Goldstein, Zoe; OLS Payment Services; and University Debt Collection.