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'Am I Going to Have to Kill You?': The Horrific Ways Abusive Debt Collectors Threaten and Harass Their Victims

In an economic downturn, some debt collectors have concluded that violating federal law is simply the cost of doing business.

Bart Bryant remembers all too well the day a very nasty and confrontational debt collector called to speak to his wife. By the time Bryant decided to take legal action, the Connecticut-based blues-rock musician had been subjected to everything from racial and anti-Semitic slurs and sexually degrading comments about his wife to taunts urging him to commit suicide.

It started when an employee of a debt collection agency based in New York State pretended to be an attorney and asked to speak to Bryant’s wife about a small gas card debt his son owed. Bryant offered to take a message, but the collector had no interest in having a polite conversation. Bryant recalled: “The guy says to me, ‘Why don’t you mind your own fucking business and put your wife on the phone?’ I said, ‘I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, buddy.’ It turns into a shouting match between me and him. He hangs up. I get the caller ID. I call the number back.”

Things only went downhill from there. Said Bryant: “They said things like, ‘We know your father has been molesting you. Why don’t you have him take his cock out of your ass and stick it in your mouth? You know you like it. Why don’t you have your wife come over here and give us blow jobs? You’re a loser. Why don’t you jump in front of a train and kill yourself?’ I recorded all of it and sent it to my attorney, Joseph Mauro.”

Hoping that Bryant might be African American, the debt collector called him the n-word; hoping he might be Jewish, the collector said, “Shalom, motherfucker.” Bryant, a white male who was raised Christian, is neither African American nor Jewish. But the debt collector who made those remarks was looking for anything that might intimidate Bryant, and all he succeeded in doing was inspiring Bryant to fight back. With Mauro representing him, Bryant took the collection agency to court; a settlement was reached.

“These guys are sick and twisted and will do anything to make a buck,” Bryant said. “And when they made the comment about my wife, that’s when I had to call the police.”

Mauro, a Long Island-based attorney who specializes in consumer rights and has represented many victims of abusive debt collectors, said, “Bart’s case is fairly extreme. Unfortunately, it’s not isolated.”

From racial epithets to impersonating police officers to trying to collect debts from the wrong people, some debt collectors have become increasingly abusive in recent years—and in the economic downturn of the late 2000s and early 2010s, those abuses are only becoming worse. In March, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that next to identity theft, complaints about debt collectors were the most common complaints it received in 2010; last year, the FTC said, it received over 144,000 complaints about debt collectors, which was a 17 percent increase from the 119,609 debt collector-related complaints it received in 2009. The FTC said more than 4,100 of the complaints it received about debt collectors in 2010 involved threats of physical violence.

“The level of abuse and harassment in the debt collection industry is reaching epic proportions,” said Ira J. Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) in Washington, DC. “For example, calling people at work inappropriately, calling neighbors inappropriately, people on the phone being particularly abusive—we’re seeing more of that type of abuse than we ever have before.”

In the United States, debt collection is governed at the federal level by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act of 1977 (FDCPA), which is very specific about what debt collectors are and aren’t allowed to do in pursuit of a debt. Profane, abusive, insulting or threatening language is strictly prohibited, as are deceitful communications such as debt collectors pretending to be attorneys or law enforcement agents. The FDCPA also governs the communications that debt collectors may have with third parties; the FDCPA permits debt collectors to contact third parties (neighbors or co-workers, for example) to obtain information about one’s whereabouts, although they aren’t allowed to discuss the specifics of a debt with third parties.

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