Some Debt Collectors Are Using Illegal Tactics

Feb. 8, 2006 — -- The Federal Trade Commission gets more consumer complaints about debt collectors than about any other industry. Americans report being harassed, threatened, even coerced into paying debts that aren't their own.

Hundreds of collection companies now specialize in collecting on 10- to 20-year-old debts called "zombie debts" -- debts so old you can't even be sued over them.

Every day, millions of Americans receive intimidating phone calls, like the ones that Frank Buselli started getting.

"I perceived the last phone call as a threat," Buselli said. "When they said they were going to send some thugs up there to get me, they had crossed a serious line with me."

Buselli doesn't even owe anyone any money! It turns out the callers were trying to collect on his 36-year-old daughter who hadn't lived at home in years and said she didn't have any debt either.

Buselli called the police and the FTC. His tip helped the FTC crack down on an aggressive collection company called Camco.

"Essentially what they did was they went into the phone book," said the FTC's Joel Winston, "looked up people with the same name in the same area [as debtors] and started calling them, abusing them and threatening them to pay debts that we think in 80 percent of cases the consumer didn't owe the debt."

The FTC got an injunction against Camco, and the company abandoned its Illinois offices so fast that the offices appeared to be frozen in time -- complete with cigars, calendars listing collection goals, and a board where workers added up all the money.

One woman, whom we'll call Jamie, used to work for Camco. She did not want to be identified because she still runs into her co-workers. She said she heard "collectors threatening anything and everything they could in order to get the money."

"There were collectors who would tell people: 'I know your address. I know where you live. I know where you work. I'll find out where your children live. I will do whatever I have to do to get this money,' " she said.

Jamie said collectors often claimed they would refer the debt to the legal department even though Camco didn't have one. And when they needed a heavy, they put their "manager" on the line, only it was just another collector playing manager.

Some collectors threatened jail time, Jamie said, even though being in debt isn't a crime. And if the consumer insisted it wasn't their bill, the collectors had an answer for that, too. They would tell them that they were "going to call your electric company, your phone company, your mortgage company, and I'm going to tell them that these are all fraudulent accounts," she said.

Jamie said some people were so afraid they paid the same debt over and over again.

"They honestly believed that someone was going to come and hurt them physically if they didn't pay," she said.

Jamie's claims echo the FTC's case against Camco. In court filings, company executives have denied the allegations. Their attorney declined to comment to ABC News.

Camco is not the only collection company to outrage consumers. One couple in Utah sued a collection agency that was harassing them and ended up collecting money from their collector. But many are still out there right now, harassing consumers.

Tips on Dealing With Debt Collectors

Want the collectors to stop calling you?

Ask for the name and address of the company. Then write a letter saying: "Do not call me anymore," and send it certified mail. By law, it must obey your wishes. The debt doesn't go away, but the harassment does.

Companies are not allowed to call before 8 in the morning or after 9 at night.

They must mail you a letter giving the details of your debt within five days of calling.

They're not allowed to tell anybody else about your debt.

It's illegal for collectors to curse at you or threaten violence.

No false lawsuit claims -- it's also illegal for collectors to say they're going to sue you unless they really are.