Hoosiers targeted for "zombie debt" collection


Debt collectors are targeting Hoosiers, trying to collect money owed years ago, or in some cases, debt that's already paid or disposed of.

What you don't know could mean more money out of your pocket.

Buried, old debt coming back to life - it's called "zombie debt."

"Zombie debts are debts that no longer can be collected," said Syed Ali Saeed, an Indiana Consumer Protection attorney.

Debt from contracts like credit cards dormant for six years or more, debt discharged through bankruptcy and debt already paid are supposed to be off-limits.

"The junk debt-buying industry is a billion-dollar industry," said Indiana Consumer Protection attorney Ryan Frasher.

But 13 Investigates has found the rules designed to protect you from unfair collections are being broken by collection companies and their partners.

"Creditors are still trying to collect on debt that's been discharged," Frasher said.

Over the past year, junk debt buyer LVNV Funding paid a $12.5 million settlement to resolve allegations of unfair debt collection and Asset Acceptance agreed to a $2.5 million fine for deceptive statements and false credit reports against consumers.

"We just don't understand what's going on," said Chet Pepsak of Speedway.

Another collector, RAB Performance Recoveries of New Jersey is the same company that filed a lawsuit against Pepsak.

"The debt was so far back that we can't find any record of it. They have some records of something, but we can't say yes or no," Pepsak said.

The Pepsaks' problem centers on an old credit card written off as unpaid in 2005. It's been bought and sold to three different collectors since then. In 2008, RAB and its attorneys filed a summons in Montgomery County, seeking payment for the card. The Pepsaks didn't get the summons until almost a year later.

"We went to court. They never showed up," Pepsak said.

The case was dismissed.

Nearly a year later, RAB attorneys had the lawsuit reinstated and eventually transferred to Perry Township Small Claims Court in Marion County. That was November 2011.

When Pepsak was ordered to Perry Township last year, he questioned the validity of the debt and the statute of limitations that would have expired in May 2011.

"They said, 'Oh, no, we filed in Montgomery County, so it's still good.' How can it be? If they filed in Perry Township six years later?" Pepsak asked.

Experts say collection companies use tactics to get the statute of limitations restarted. Unsuspecting consumers can trigger a new start date by making a payment on the debt, thinking it will get companies off their backs.

Instead, it gives an old debt new life.

Or, in Pepsak's case, RAB satisfied the statute of limitations by filing the earlier lawsuit, even though it was dismissed and refiled again in the wrong court.

"So they have to figure out a way where they can stop the statute from running, so they file the lawsuit," said Saeed.

"They can just keep on refiling and refiling and refiling and refiling. They can do it until I retire or die," Pepsak said.

Wright & Lerch is a Fort Wayne law firm working for RAB. The firm also defends other debt collectors accused of violating the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in Indiana.

Wright & Lerch is pursuing the lawsuit against Pepsak.

13 Investigates caught up with Steve Lerch outside of Perry Township Small Claims Court to ask about "zombie debt" and prior allegations of illegal practices.

"You can ask me all the questions you want. I'm not going to answer those questions, because you don't have your facts right," said Steve Lerch.

"Tell us what the facts are," said investigative reporter Sandra Chapman.

"Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom," Lerch replied.

Records from U.S. Federal Court show a trail of lawsuits against Wright & Lerch and their clients since 2003. Complaints, settlements and judgments against the firm for allegedly using false, deceptive or misleading ways to collect old debt and to get information about consumers.

Judgments leveled against Wright & Lerch found the firm garnishing wages of consumers for debt already discharged through bankruptcy.

Frasher took on one of the cases against the firm.

"It's the high volume, large debt collection mills that typically violate the law the same way over and over again," he said.

Frasher says it's a high-dollar numbers game.

Not even a $1,000 fine and a judgment like this requiring Wright & Lerch to pay a consumer's $30,000 attorney fee is enough to stop the violations.

"They file thousands of cases monthly. A thousand dollars to them is not a deterrent to them to stop violating the law. To them, it becomes a cost of doing business," Frasher said.

Back in Perry Township, Lerch says the records speak for themselves.

"We do not sue on debt that is past the Indiana statute of limitations. Our clients take every precaution they can to make sure that debt is not sued on past the statute of limitations," Lerch said.

But when pressed for more on his firm's practices, Lerch claims his profession is unfairly attacked.

"You are so agenda-driven, it's sad," Lerch told Chapman.

"Well, the agenda is to make sure that people that are coming to Marion County Small Claims Courts are treated fairly and that their rights are upheld," Chapman replied.

"And we do that. And we do that," Lerch said.

Outside, Pepsak grew tired. He agreed to pay a debt he thought was long gone.

"I guess we're just paying for something that we're not sure of, just to get them off our back," he said.

Pepsak says they struck a deal - one that will make RAB Performance Recoveries a hefty profit.

Here's how it breaks down:

RAB purchased the debt for about six cents on the dollar, or about $54. In the end, the company will collect 26 times that amount - $1,400 plus court costs.

After all these years, is it finally over? We asked to see the deal in writing, so Pepsak showed a handwritten agreement and receipt.

But Pepsak does have something else.

He recorded the meeting with Lerch to make sure he buries the old debt for good.

If old debt comes back to haunt you, experts have several tips to know:

  • Don't ignore letters from debt collectors or courts. There's just a small window of time to investigate.
  • Get your case reviewed. Some attorneys, like Frasher, will do it for free.
  • Most of all, preserve your rights. Send a letter of dispute. Companies have to provide proof of the debt.

And remember, you only have a year to take action against a collector for a suspected violation.

Related links

Federal Trade Commission on debt collection
Zombie Debt - Legal encyclopedia
Consumer Finance - Sample debt letters