Saturday, May 27, 2006

Consumer warning: Beware bogus collection notices

Barbara's Column
August #4

Consumer warning: Beware bogus collection notices
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, August 24, 2005

This is a consumer warning. What happened to my partner could happen to you.

Or I should say "what almost happened"? Because they picked on the wrong person when they tried to get Chip to pay $453 that he didn't owe.

Having had a bad experience with a con man in the past, Chip chased him across the country until he found satisfaction. He has zero tolerance for being ripped off.

This was not an Internet scam. There was no enterprising Nigerians wanting to share their fortunes.

The official-looking letter came in the mail complete with proper letterhead, dunning text, Privacy Notice attachment, and business reply envelope included.

The letter was from the Merchants' Credit Guide Co., a "member of American Collectors Association," with executive offices in Chicago, Ill. It also had a post office box in Hauppauge, New York.

There was reference to an original file number and a credit balance of $453 with the original creditor, Citicorp. It also gave consumer information for several states, and included a Weymouth address with office hours on the back of the letter, which was signed by Ken Hughes, collection agency representative.

Ken kindly offered three repayment plans: Paid in full, three consecutive payments, or a monthly payment that "is affordable to me at this time." Chip chose none of the above, for the very good reason that he knew he didn't owe Citicorp anything.

He didn't bother with the Weymouth address, which did not include a phone number. He checked with where he found other people had been notified of nonexistent or long-ago settled debts by this collectors' association.

So Chip sent a letter directly to Mr. Hughes, advising him that he has never had an account with Citicorp, that he would not be paying the "credit balance," and that he was reporting this to the relevant attorneys general. He copied the letter to Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly, and to Elliot Spitzer in New York and Lisa Madigan in Illinois.

Both Spitzer and Madigan's offices responded immediately that they were contacting the company to request a statement of their position and a possible adjustment.

He soon received a note from Illinois' Consumer Protection Division, stating that "This office has been advised that your complaint has been settled to your satisfaction."

Merchants' Credit assured the AG's office that it is a reputable collection agency that has been in business for over 109 years and is licensed to collect in the state of Massachusetts. It had received Chip's "debt" from one of its clients, NCO Portfolio Management, which had purchased it from Citicorp.

When it requested validation of the account from NCO Portfolio, according to the collection agency, that company was "unable to provide documents." As a result, it assured the Illinois AG's office that Chip would not hear from it again in reference to this debt.

Well, good.

But what about people who pay?

Among the recent postings at Rip-off Report about Merchants we found four from Massachusetts. Two of them responded as Chip did, but two sent money — a Halifax woman sent $1,200 that Merchants said it was collecting for Sears, before she realized she hadn't owed it.

So if you get a notice from Merchants, NCO Portfolio, or any other collection agency, check it out before you send the check. If anyone gives you a hard time, contact the attorney general in the state of origin.

You can try the Massachusetts attorney general too, but Chip never heard back from Reilly. Maybe he's too busy running for governor. But then, so is Elliot Spitzer, probably against our very own Bill Weld!

You can google Rip-off Report about any company with which you may be having a problem. You can also find counter-attacks against Rip-off itself. One stated that "once the Ripoffreport, badbusinessburuea (sic) has duped the victims into posting a negative report, then the operation begins" and warns that you will be asked for money.

Not clear on how one is duped into filing a report, but yes, when Chip triumphantly posted his experience, he got a response asking if he'd like to contribute to keep it alive. He figured being asked for a donation was better than being told to pay $453 he didn't owe, so he sent a few dollars.

Rip-off Report's Web site carries a "Notice to Scumbeezles" (including those who threaten to sue) from its owner: "NEWS FLASH: I didn't just climb down off that ol' turnip truck yesterday. I'm well aware that expressing a negative opinion, relating one's personal experience, and restating provable facts are all legal in this country and do not constitute libel, slander, or defamation — so you don't want to play games with me, and you sure don't want to start something you aren't prepared to finish. I don't take threats lightly, and I don't accept bribes (or did you call it a 'mutually-beneficial arrangement'?). I'll turn you in faster than you can yell, 'ARREST ME, I'M SCUM!!'"

Looks like my friend Chip has found a kindred spirit.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News, Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, (Lawrence) Eagle-Tribune, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.

""Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind."" by Dr. Seuss.

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