A debt collection agency that allegedly used lies and threats to collect debts has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that its tactics violated federal laws. Under the court settlement, the company agreed to a $150,000 judgment and to refrain from illegal practices when collecting debts, including “time-barred” debts – debts so old they are no longer legally enforceable.
The government’s complaint alleges that Whitewing Financial Group, Inc. bought and attempted to collect on very old debts, many of which were beyond statutory limitations and too old to appear on credit reports, and many of which had been discharged in bankruptcy. As required by law, Whitewing sent “validation notices” informing consumers of their right to dispute the alleged debts, but its statements in phone calls allegedly often contradicted those notices. The statements pressured consumers to make payments before they had received the validation notice, and confused them about their rights, including who had the burden of establishing the validity of the debt. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), if a consumer disputes all or part of a debt in writing within 30 days of receiving a validation notice, the debt collector must cease collection efforts until it has provided the consumer with written verification of the debt.
The complaint alleges that, because there is no legitimate method to enforce payment of time-barred debts, the defendants often misrepresented the status of the debts, leading people to believe that legal proceedings had begun, that lawsuits to collect debts were not time-barred, or that the defendants had documents showing that the debts were valid when, in fact, they did not. The complaint also alleges that the defendants misrepresented that if the consumer did not pay the debt, the defendants would take actions that they never intended to take, such as reporting the debts to credit bureaus or initiating legal proceedings.
Whitewing, based in Houston, Texas, and co-defendants Christopher B. Badger, Lynda J. Badger, and Jon P. Badger are charged with violating the FDCPA and the FTC Act by, among other things, misrepresenting the character, amount, or legal status of debts, threatening to take actions that cannot legally be taken or that are not intended to be taken, using false representations or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect debts or to obtain informationconcerning a consumer, contradicting the notification of consumer rights contained in the validation notice, and communicating with consumers without prior consent or court permission, at times or places the defendants knew or should have known were inconvenient for the consumer, such as their work place.
All but $30,000 of the $150,000 judgment has been suspended based on the defendants’ inability to pay. The Commission vote to refer the complaint and proposed consent decree to the Department of Justice for filing was 5-0. At the FTC’s request, the DOJ filed the complaint and consent decree in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division. Judge Lynn N. Holmes entered the consent decree on June 23, 2006.
NOTE: This consent decree is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendants of a law violation. The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendants have actually violated the law.
Copies of the complaint and consent decree are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish (bilingual counselors are available to take complaints), or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to thousands of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Claudia Bourne Farrell
Office of Public Affairs
Office of Public Affairs
FTC’s Southwest Regional Office
(FTC File No. 032-3129)