Overstating a debtor’s balance — also called “overbiffing” — is the latest outrage in unfair debt collection.
In a recent case, regulators allege a New York debt collector may have tricked thousands of consumers into paying far more than they actually owed by fraudulently inflating consumer balances and using profane, abusive and illegal tactics to collect the fabricated bills. The term is called “overbiffing” because the scammers overstate a person’s “balance in full,” which is sometimes shortened to BIF.
Slapping a temporary restraining order on a half-dozen companies affiliated with a Buffalo debt collector named Robert Heidenreich, also known as “Bobby Rich,” regulators maintain that Heindenreich’s bill collectors chronicled just how much they “overbiffed” by using forms showing the actual balance due as well as the inflated amount that they told consumers was owed.
In many cases, this false “balance given” was hundreds, even thousands, of dollars more than the consumer actually owed.
“This is really egregious,” says John Heath, directing attorney at Lexington Law, a credit repair firm. “Unfortunately this is something that happened enough that the FTC had to involve itself in filing an action.”
In addition to artificially inflating debt balances, Heidenreich directed his employees to mislead debtors about who was calling — encouraging his debt collectors to pose as lawyers or members of law enforcement, according to complaints filed by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York Attorney General’s office.
The debt collectors would warn the consumer had committed a crime and was about to be arrested, sued or served with legal papers because of a failure to pay an alleged debt. When the frantic consumer would ask how to stop the legal proceedings, the debt collectors would direct them to “attorneys” — actually just additional debt collectors — who would allow them to pay over the phone with a debit card.
When consumers balked at paying the bill, the debt collectors turned abusive, according to the complaint, engaging in threatening expletive-filled rants, sometimes threatening to call the debtor’s employer or relatives.
Heidenreich’s attorney failed to return calls for comment.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits all of these actions. Debt collectors are not allowed to use abusive language or contact anyone other than the debtor in their attempt to collect. Misrepresenting who collectors are, lying about the consequences of not repaying a debt and fabricating debt amounts are also prohibited under FDCPA, as well as other fraud statutes.
Anyone who is contacted by a debt collector has the right to demand that the collector “validate” the debt in writing, showing how much is owed and to whom. Consumers should be able to verify these numbers against the numbers on their own credit reports, which they can get for free at www.annualcreditreport.com.
If a debt collector is abusive or is harassing you with multiple phone calls, you also have the right to bar them from further telephone communication, says Heath. The collector would then be forced to only contact you in writing.
If a collector violates these rules, you can report the abuse to your state attorney general’s consumer affairs division or to the FTC.
A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on Heidenreich and his companies and employees on Thursday, barring them from further violations of the law, as well as from destroying documents or moving company assets.
-Kathy Kristof reporting for CBS News Moneywatch
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