RIVERVIEW, Fla. - Sharon Creveling was divorced in 1998. The end of the marriage left her more than $25,000 in debt.
Despite getting laid off from two jobs as a social worker in the intervening years, Creveling says she had paid off all but a few thousand dollars of the obligations by 2009. Then a company by the name of Asset Acceptance LLC came into her life.
Asset Acceptance, which buys old debt and tries to collect the balances via a call center in Riverview, acquired a $2,731 unpaid bill from Bank of America. "I called them and asked them to work with me," said Creveling. "They wouldn't work with me."
Creveling's attorney, Charles R. Gallagher III of St. Petersburg, says Asset Acceptance may be engaging in conduct that landed the Michigan-based debt collector in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission. Without acknowledging wrongdoing, Asset Acceptance entered into a consent decree in January with the FTC that included payment of a $2.5 million fine. The decree, filed in federal court in Tampa, requires the company to make sure it is contacting the right debtor about a debt and that the debt isn't out-of-date.
"They were told not to collect on debt which was expired or was expiring," said Gallagher. "And based upon that consent judgment with the FTC, it appears they're in violation of that."
Tampa attorney Billy Howard represents consumers in disputes with debt collectors. Howard says Asset Acceptance specializes in purchasing old debts, which are often no longer legally enforceable, for pennies on the dollar. Then Asset Acceptance has its call center in Riverview swing into action.
Operators call what they hope are the debtors and try to persuade them to make some payment on the delinquent account. In Florida, if Asset Acceptance is successful, the company gets more time under state law to collect, according to Howard. That includes the right to file a lawsuit against the debtor.
"They're tricking people into making payment," said Howard. "If you make a payment on a very old debt, it could resurrect that debt."
The Florida attorney general's office has received dozens of complaints about Asset Acceptance. The AG's office has opened an investigation into the company.
Creveling says she was puzzled that Asset Acceptance has been unresponsive to both her and Gallagher since she started getting letters and calls about the old debt in recent months.
"I understand where they're coming from," she told the ABC Action News I-Team. "But I also asked them to work with me, from the very beginning. And they wouldn't do it. And now, this many years later, I'm still dealing with something that could have been taken care of a long time ago."
Gallagher says he believes he knows why Asset Acceptance won't return his calls. Since Creveling last made a payment in 2009, the company has only until next March to get Creveling to pay something on the debt, or it will be legally barred from further dunning her.
"In Florida, there's a four-year term for breaching a contract," Gallagher said. "They want to reset the clock. At four years, they're time-barred. If they can get one payment during that four-year timeframe, the clock restarts again for them. They have a fresh statute of limitations to work with."
So Gallagher says that Asset Acceptance's recent interest in Creveling's account is no mystery to him. "There's been a period of inaction for years, after they've been unwilling to work with her and help her," he said. "Now, on the eve of that time becoming barred for good, they ramp up their efforts and become more aggressive with their collection efforts."
Asset Acceptance's common stock is publicly traded on NASDAQ. The company reported net income of $12 million last year after suffering a $1.6 million loss in 2010, according to a regulatory filing.
Mary Arraf, manager of corporate communications at Asset Acceptance, told the I-Team that the company had nobody available for an interview. Arraf referred the I-Team to a news release that was issued around the time of the FTC settlement earlier this year. Read that release at http://investors.assetacceptance.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=148416&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1654112 .
The release quotes Rion Needs, president and chief executive officer of Asset Accepance, as stating: "This agreement gives consumers even more visibility into how we will work with them and sets new standards for the industry. We are pleased to have this matter behind us, and to have clarity on the FTC's policies and expectations of the debt collection industry. As we have
already implemented many of the requirements of the consent decree, we now welcome the opportunity to work with the FTC to make these measures the new standards in debt collection."
Since the FTC settlement, Asset Acceptance has had to enter into another settlement with a Lakeland woman, who claims the company sued her for a debt that didn't belong to her.
"Well, you know, credit cards typically have sixteen digits. It only had the last four digits. That was the only thing in the whole complaint that tied this debt to me," Sheila Munoz told the I-Team. "They were saying we owed $25,000, approximately. And we've never had a credit card with anything close to that on it."
Without a lawyer, Munoz got Acceptance Acceptance not only to drop the lawsuit but pay her to drop a counter-suit that she had filed.
"Now that I look back, it's like, 'Oh, my gosh. I did it,'" she said. "It's a feeling of satisfaction."
Munoz has just published a book about her experience, "Defending a Lawsuit by a Junk Debt Buyer: How a Florida Mom Beat Asset Acceptance LLC." She says she hopes it helps other consumers who want to fight back against unfair debt collection practices. Find the book on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Defending-Lawsuit-Collection-Agency-ebook/dp/B006YXEMKQ .
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