The Federal Trade Commission has ordered a Houston debt collector to pay a $4 million penalty for allegedly using false and deceptive collection practices that cost consumers more than $1.3 million in unfair fees. And the company can't pay.
So what happens when the debt collector can't pay its own debts? According to the ruling, RTB Enterprises (which also operates as Allied Data Corp.) and its owner, Raymond T. Blair, must forfeit assets totaling $100,000 to partially suspend the judgment. Blair would be ordered pay the full $4 million if he failed to turn over his assets, which include a luxury mobile home.
The Cost of Unlawful Collections
It seems like a small price for a company that is said to have sucked $1.3 million from debtors by claiming transaction and convenience fees were inevitable, in addition to falsely claiming to speak for attorneys who would sue debtors if they didn't pay. The FTC also alleges collectors deceived consumers to acquire their personal information.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Apparently, collectors were trained to tell consumers that payments weren't accepted if sent by mail, so they couldn't avoid the fees associated with taking payments by phone. In some cases, the fees were added to consumers' accounts without their knowledge, the complaint says. Perhaps most striking about this order from the FTC: The company will be allowed to continue its operations, as long as it ends its illegal practices and complies with the judgment suspension.
Mark Schiffman, vice president of the collection association ACA International, said via email he couldn't comment on specifics of the litigation, but a collector's capacity to stay in business following such severe accusations relies on a few requirements going forward: the ability to retain clients, get proper licensing in its state and get business insurance and bonding required by state law. "We don't condone bad behavior and feel strongly that businesses caught breaking the law should be held accountable," he said.
How to Handle Debt Collectors
Dealing with a collection account can be stressful, so consumers need to know their rights. Debt collectors are not allowed to lie to consumers (which is what seems to have happened in this case).
Paying a collection account doesn't remove the negative trade line from your credit report, but it should prevent the debt from changing hands and potentially causing you more financial stress. A collection account will hurt your credit score temporarily. As the account ages off your report, it will have less of an impact on your credit standing, which you can track for free through Credit.com.
Debt Collector Can't Pay $4 Million Fine, but Can Stay in Business
One reason why Marquis' gas purchases might have triggered a fraud lockdown? Filling their tank is a common first move for credit card thieves.
"Some of the things they look at are small-dollar transactions at gas stations, followed by an attempt to make a larger purchase," explains Adam Levin of Identity Theft 911.
The idea is that thieves want to confirm that the card actually works before going on a buying spree, so they'll make a small purchase that wouldn't catch the attention of the cardholder. Popular methods include buying gas or making a small donation to charity, so banks have started scrutinizing those transactions.
Of course, it's not a simple matter of buying gas or giving to charity -- if those tasks triggered alerts constantly, no one would do either with a credit card. But Levin points to another possible explanation: Purchases made in a high-crime area are going to be held to a higher standard by the bank.
"It's almost a form of redlining," he says. "If there are certain [neighborhoods] where they've experienced an enormous amount of fraud, then anytime they see a transaction in the neighborhood, it sends an alert."
(Indeed, Erin tells me that one of the gas purchases that triggered an alert took place in a rough part of Detroit, which she visited specifically for the cheap gas.)
People who steal credit cards and credit card numbers usually aren't doing it so they can outfit their home with electronics and appliances. They don't want the actual products they're fraudulently buying; they're just in it to make money. So banks are always on the lookout for purchases of items that can easily be re-sold.
"Anytime a product can be turned around quickly for cash value, those are going to be the items that you would probably assume that, if you were a thief, you would want to get to first," says Karisse Hendrick of the Merchant Risk Council, which helps online merchants cut down on fraud. Levin says electronics are common choices for fraudsters, as are precious metals and jewelry.
Many thieves don't want to go through the rigmarole of buying laptops and jewelry, then selling them online or at pawnshops. They'd much prefer to just turn your stolen card directly into cold, hard cash.
There are a few ways that they can do that, and all of them will raise red flags at your bank or credit union. Using a credit card to buy a pricey gift card or load a bunch of money on a prepaid debit card is a fast way to attract the suspicions of your credit card issuer. Levin adds that some identity thieves also use stolen or cloned credit cards to buy chips at a casino, which they can then cash out (or, if they're feeling lucky, gamble away).
When assessing whether a purchase might be fraudulent, banks aren't just looking at what you bought and where you bought it. They're also asking if it's something you usually buy.
"The issuers know the buying patterns of a cardholder," says Hendrick. "They know the typical dollar amount of transaction and the type of purchase they put on a credit card."
Your bank sees a fairly high percentage of your purchases, so it knows if one is out of character for you. A thrifty individual who suddenly drops $500 on designer clothes should expect to get a call -- or have to make one when the bank flags the transaction. If you rarely travel and your card is suddenly used to purchase a flight to Europe, that's going to raise some red flags.
Speaking of Europe, the other big factor in banks' risk equations is whether you're making a purchase in a new area. I bought a computer just days after moving from Boston to New York, and had to confirm to the bank that I was indeed trying to make the purchase. Levin likewise says that making purchases in two different cities over a short period of time raises suspicions.
"I go from New York to California a lot, and invariably someone will call me [from the bank], " he says. Since one person can't go shopping in New York and California at the same time, any time a bank sees multiple purchases in multiple locations in a short period, it's going to be suspicious.