Washington State Attorney General sues Everett collection agency for harassment, threats -
SEATTLE – The Attorney General’s Office is suing an Everett-based collection agency accused of harassing, threatening and cussing at consumers. Representatives of Topco Financial Services, Inc., allegedly called debtors names such as “loser,” scum,” “plight on society,”
“no good,” “lowlife,” “deadbeat,” “worthless,” or “terrible parents,” as well as profane names not suitable for print.
That kind of language isn’t just abusive – it’s illegal. It’s also the type of unfair business practice that can make it harder for legitimate collectors who play by the rules to do their job.
“With many consumers in financial crisis, collection agencies are busier than ever,” said Assistant Attorney General Shannon Smith, of the Consumer Protection Division. “While they have a right to try to collect on debts that you legitimately owe, they must treat consumers fairly and cannot bully, inundate you with harassing phone calls or lie about what will happen if you don’t pay a bill.”
Complaints against collections agencies have grown steadily since 2001, when the industry ranked 8th on the Attorney General’s list of consumer complaint categories, to second place in 2007. Statistics from 2008 will be announced in March. In response, last fall the Attorney General’s Office assembled representatives of collection agencies to discuss legal regulations.
“Even though they provide an important service for businesses, collection agencies get a bad rap because nobody likes to be on the receiving end of the call,” Attorney General Rob McKenna said. “Unfortunately, it only takes a few bad collectors to generate a lot of complaints.”
Topco Financial’s clients include towing companies. The company employs individuals to collect on the original towing or impound fees, plus 12 percent interest. The Attorney General’s Office has received more than 120 complaints about the company since the beginning of 2005 from residents of Washington and a handful of other states. The business has an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau.
The state’s complaint submitted today to Snohomish County Superior Court accuses the company; president Tracey Austell, of Mill Creek, and secretary/treasurer Harry Packer, of Desert Hot Springs, Calif., of violating the state’s Consumer Protection Act. Packer has also lived in Kenmore.
The complaint states that while attempting to collect on debt, Topco or its representatives frequently have:
Used harassing, threatening, intimidating, embarrassing and offensive language, including:
Disparaged debtors with comments including, “You got yourself into this [profanity] situation,” and “What kind of mother is she to raise a daughter like you?”
Threatening to “bi*ch slap” a debtor.
After having been informed by a debtor that she was undergoing tests for possible cancer, representatives allegedly replied, “Aren’t you dead yet? I’m going to collect the money from you dead or alive,” and “Why don’t you just die from cancer because you are a low-life deadbeat?”
Threatened to take action without lawful authority, including threatening to revoke, suspend or impair debtors’ driver’s licenses.
Threatened debtors with impairment of their credit rating.
Idaho’s Department of Finance issued a cease and desist order in September 2008 alleging that Topco Financial was not properly licensed to engage in collection activities in that state.
As a reminder, state and federal laws require that debt collectors treat you fairly, and limit when and how often they may contact you. You also have the right to write to a debt collector and tell them to stop contacting you, after which they can't contact you again except to notify you of legal action or confirm they'll stop contacting you. Additionally, a collector cannot pursue a debt that has been discharged in bankruptcy or that you’ve proven is not yours.
For more information about laws that regulate collection agencies, see http://www.atg.wa.gov/ConsumerIssues/Credit/CollectionAgencies.aspx.
Consumers can file complaints about businesses on the Attorney General’s Web site at www.atg.wa.gov/fileacomplaint.aspx or call the Consumer Resource Center to request a claim form.
Complaint analysts can be reached from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays at 1-800-551-4636.
Consumers should also be aware of the importance of filing a Vehicle Report of Sale with the Department of Licensing at the time they sell a car. The report of sale does not transfer ownership of the vehicle, but releases the previous owner from legal liability. If you do not file a report of sale, you may be held liable for parking tickets, impound fees, and other financial liabilities incurred by the new owner until they transfer the title into their name.
File online at http://www.dol.wa.gov/vehicleregistration/transfertitle.html.
The best way to avoid calls from collection agencies is to pay your bills on time. Outstanding debt can lower your credit score, which lenders use to determine if you’re a good risk for a car loan, mortgage or credit card.
The Federal Trade Commission’s publication, “Knee Deep in Debt,” contains advice for those overwhelmed by bills: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre19.shtm.
For a referral to a local credit counselor, call 211 or visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling Web site: www.debtadvice.org.