Aug. 7, 2013 -- 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."
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.
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.