In a twist of irony, a West Virginia woman is trying to collect money from a collection agency.
Diana Mey, of Wheeling, W.Va., won the largest judgment ever against an abusive debt collection company -- more than $10 million.
"I'm a mom and I'm a housewife, and I'm an accidental activist," Mey said.
From her small-town home base in Wheeling, Mey went after a debt collection empire that hounds people nationwide -- and won. But she still hasn't received any money.
"I don't know that I'll ever collect a dime," she said, "but if I can get their operation shut down, that would make me very happy."
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Three years ago, Mey said, a debt collector with a company called Reliant Financial Associates, or RFA, left a message implying that her house was in jeopardy if she didn't pay a debt.
According to a recording Mey made, the message stated: "I'm calling in regards to a preliminary asset liability investigation. They are in the process of serving some court documents in regards to case 29369. ... They have some information now pending questions at the property. ... Springdale Avenue, in Wheeling, W.Va. It is in your best interests to contact the department. You are required to contact 866..."
It is illegal for debt collectors to make empty threats about serving people with a lawsuit or seizing their home. And it was especially galling to Mey, who said she is debt-free.
"They threatened to take legal action against our property and it wasn't even our debt," Mey said.
Millions of Americans are victims of such mistaken debtor identity, partly because of a new breed of collectors called "debt buyers." They purchase old debts for pennies that the original creditors have given up on and then try to collect them for a big profit. Critics say debt buyers sometimes use outrageous tactics to get the money where others have failed. RFA is a debt buyer.
Mey wrote RFA a cease-and-desist letter, telling the company not to contact her anymore, and sent it by certified mail. Postal records show exactly when RFA signed for it. Precisely 23 minutes later, Mey said, she started getting mysterious hang-up calls that showed up on her caller ID as coming from her local county government.
"So I called the number back and it was the sheriff's department," Mey said. "And I asked if someone there was trying to reach me. And they said no, nobody there was trying to reach me."
Mey said she picked up another one with that same caller ID. The man on the line repeatedly called her a vulgar name for the female anatomy. He described violent sexual acts he would like to subject her to and asked if she liked to be "gang banged" -- again all remarks that she caught on tape. The tape showed the verbal assault went on for nearly two minutes before the man hung up.
"I was so frightened. I felt violated, but then I realized, you know, I'm taping this call,." Mey said. "I pulled myself together and I thought, I can get through this. Just keep on talking buddy because we're gonna get plenty of your voice on tape."
The verbal assault went on for nearly two minutes before the man hung up.
Mey said she immediately called 911 to report that someone had threatened to sexually assault her. She was terrified, she said, because she believed the call was from a local number. Mey then bolted the door, she said, and got her husband's gun out of the dresser and hung it on the bedpost in her bedroom.
At the time, Mey said, she didn't make a connection between that call and the collectors. But then she learned the call hadn't come from the local sheriff's office, after all. The caller ID had been manipulated to look like it did, a practice called "spoofing," later proven in Mey's case through phone records.
That's when she went online and discovered complaints about RFA debt collectors pretending to call from sheriff's offices, including a male collector who called women vulgar names.
"He picked the wrong person," Mey said.
You see, Mey has battled big companies over intrusive phone calls before. In 1999, she won a class action lawsuit against a major telemarketer whose salesmen kept calling people, even when asked to stop. People magazine named her one of the "Most Intriguing People of the Year." That's why Mey has recorded her phone calls ever since.
Mey said it took her a year to find attorneys who would sue on her behalf. Wheeling lawyers Martin Sheehan and Patrick Cassidy took the case knowing they would probably never get paid.
"Yes, I like to make money, " Sheehan said, "but at some level there's something so atrocious you have to let people come into your office and say, 'That's wrong and I'm going to do something about it.'"
In May 2011, Mey sued RFA for harassment and illegal collection practices. That August, RFA's lawyer failed to show up in court, so Mey testified unopposed. The judge called RFA's actions "malicious" and ruled that all of the allegations were true. And then he awarded that record judgment of $10,860,000.
When ABC's "The Lookout" went to RFA's Orange County, Calif., office to ask about the case, it was abandoned. RFA is an arm of a company called Global AG LLC. Records show it is just one of several collection companies run by the same people that often change names and move.
"The Lookout" also visited other offices registered to people named in Mey's suit, but employees refused to talk and asked us to leave.
ABC News contacted RFA's original lawyer last year, who said he was speaking on behalf of company principals Thai Han, Jim Phelps and Stewart Phillips.
"My clients say it is not their policy to engage in conduct that violates the law," he said.
He characterized the $10 million judgment as "unfair." That lawyer no longer represents RFA, Global or its owners.
At the time, the lawyer told ABC News that RFA made the first collection call to Mey, but denied making the second, obscene call.
However, Mey's attorneys had proof. They subpoenaed phone records that showed the obscene call originated at the debt collectors' offices, went through a service that faked the sheriff's number, and then arrived at Diana's house.
The collectors now have new lawyers, and ABC News contacted them, but some didn't return our calls and others declined to comment.
Mey knows she may never be able to collect the $10 million judgment awarded to her, but said her lawsuit still serves a purpose.
"I hope that it sends a message to other debt collectors out there that you have to follow the law," she said. "Because if you don't, there are going to be people out there that are going to stand up against you."
Indeed, more than 1,000 people have filed complaints with the government about this same group of debt collectors, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Because so many people complained and because they described "intimidation," "deception," "abuse" and "harassment," the FTC took action late last month, raiding the companies and charging them with five counts of violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
The FTC lawsuit names at least 30 interconnected companies, including Global and RFA, the companies Mey sued. Investigators said the heart of the vast web was a company called Asset and Capital Management Group, but that the owners deliberately set up shell companies and changed those satellite names often to throw off consumers and investigators.
Owners and managers named in the FTC suit were Thai Han, Jim Tran Phelps, Keith Hua and James Novella.
ABC News tried to reach them, but calls to their last known numbers did not go through or were not returned and they had not yet retained lawyers in the FTC matter.
Court documents alleged these debt collection companies used deception to get people to pay, including:
Claiming lawsuits were being filed against consumers.
Impersonating process servers and lawyers.
Threatening consumers with arrest and imprisonment.
Claiming they were going to seize consumers' property or wages.
That last technique was what Mey said the first RFA debt collector tried on her.
The Federal Trade Commission estimated the companies took in $140 million in revenue between 2009 and 2013 using these tactics.
A court has now allowed the FTC to freeze the companies' and individual defendants' assets.