FTC Puts Texas-based Operation Permanently Out of the Debt Collection Business After It Allegedly Used Deception, Insults, and False Threats against Consumers
Operation also Charged Unauthorized Fees; Owner Will Surrender His Assets
The owner of a Houston-based debt collection operation that the FTC charged used insults, lies, and false threats of imprisonment to collect on payday loans will surrender his assets, estimated to be worth $550,000, to pay restitution to consumers who were charged unauthorized fees. All the defendants will be permanently banned from debt collection under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.
In 2013, at the request of the FTC, a U.S. district court shut down Goldman Schwartz, Inc., froze its assets, and appointed a receiver to take control of the business while the case was in litigation. The debt collection operation did business nationwide, collecting primarily on payday loans. In some cases it owned the debt, and in others, it acted as a third-party collector. The operation was charged with multiple violations of both the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
“Debt collectors who harass consumers, make false threats, and charge bogus fees are violating federal law and will be held accountable,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
The defendants were charged with making false threats that consumers would be arrested and jailed, and that their children would be taken into custody; falsely claiming to be attorneys or to work hand-in-hand with local sheriff’s offices; disclosing debts to consumers’ employers and military superiors; and collecting bogus late fees and attorneys’ fees, according to the complaint.
The defendants also harassed and abused consumers by using obscene language and by calling repeatedly and at odd hours early in the morning or late at night, and failed to inform consumers of their rights to dispute the debts, have the debts verified, and obtain the names of the original creditors, the complaint alleged.
The settlement resolves FTC allegations against company owner Gerald Wright, company managers Starlette Foster and Jennifer Zamora, and several corporate defendants. The settlement requires Wright to surrender his assets, estimated at $550,000, which include funds from personal and business accounts and proceeds from the sale of realty. The remainder of a $1.4 million judgment against Wright is suspended based on inability to pay. The judgment against Foster and Zamora also is suspended due to their inability to pay. If it is later determined that the financial information the defendants provided the FTC was false, the full amount of the judgment will become due.
The monetary judgment will be used to pay restitution to consumers who were charged unauthorized late fees and attorneys’ fees, often in the hundreds of dollars. The defendants privately referred to these bogus fees as “Juice,” and used them to inflate the cost to consumers who wished to settle their debts, the complaint alleged.
Also under the order, the defendants are prohibited from misrepresenting the characteristics of any financial product or service.
As part of its continuing crackdown on scams that target consumers in financial distress, the complaint named as defendants Goldman, Schwartz Inc, doing business as Goldman, Schwartz, Lieberman & Stein; Debtcom, Inc., doing business as Cole, Tanner, & Wright; Harris County Check Recovery Inc.; and The G. Wright Group Inc., doing business as The Wright Group. Under the terms of the order, these companies will be dissolved.
For consumer information about dealing with debt collectors, see Debt Collection.
The Commission vote approving the proposed consent decree was 5-0. It is subject to court approval. The FTC filed the proposed consent decree in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division on May 19, 2014.
NOTE: Consent decrees have the force of law when approved and signed by the District Court judge.
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