Buffalo, NY - July 21, 2014 - Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced that at the request of his office and the Federal Trade Commission, Federal District Court Judge Richard J. Arcara issued a preliminary injunction halting a debt collection operation charged with violating New York State and Federal law, including New York’s consumer protection and debt collection statutes. The debt collectors falsely accused consumers of committing check fraud, then threatened consumers with arrest, imprisonment, wage garnishments, and civil suits. The court order stops the illegal conduct, freezes the operation’s assets, and appoints a temporary receiver to take over the defendants’ businesses.
“All too often, innocent New Yorkers are relentlessly harassed by predatory, abusive debt collectors,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “My office, along with partners like the Federal Trade Commission, will keep fighting to protect hardworking consumers and put a stop to unfair financial bullying once and for all.”
As part of Attorney General Schneiderman’s continuing crackdown on rogue debt collectors that target consumers in financial distress, the lawsuit charged three individuals – Joseph C. Bella III and Luis Shaw, both of Buffalo, New York, and Diane Bella, who resides in Florida, and 9 interrelated companies. The defendants allegedly bought debts and collected them, most often debts that had originated from payday loans. Going by various names including National Check Registry, according to the complaint, the operation began using another name – eCapital Services, LLC – to evade detection and continue its illegal behavior after Joseph Bella signed an agreement with New York State authorities in October 2013 that prohibited him and his debt collection companies from violating Federal and State debt collection laws.
Operating the scheme since at least February 2010, the defendants misrepresent that consumers had committed check fraud or some other unlawful act related to the purported debt. Defendants then threatened consumers with dire consequences – such as lawsuits, arrest and imprisonment, or seizure of assets – unless they paid the debt immediately. The defendants repeated these deceptive claims to consumers’ family members, friends, coworkers, and employers, and revealed the consumers’ debts to these third parties as well, the complaint stated.
Also, according to the complaint, the defendants:
- told one consumer in Washington State that they would have the “Washington County Police” issue a warrant for her arrest, and another serving in the military that they would bring an action against him under the Uniform Code of Military Justice;
- said the only way to avoid arrest, imprisonment, lawsuits, wage garnishments, and seized assets would be to make an immediate payment over the phone;
- continued to accuse consumers of check fraud and other crimes even after they produced evidence showing they didn’t owe the debts in question;
- contacted friends, family members, and co-workers of consumers whom they claimed owed a debt, and in some cases, not only revealed the supposed debt but also said the consumers had committed check fraud and would be arrested or imprisoned if the debt was not paid;
- added an illegal $8 “processing fee” when consumers made payments on supposed debts over the phone;
- failed to provide consumers with debt collection notices and disclosures that are required under State and Federal law, making it difficult for consumers to determine whether they owed the debt and how they could dispute its validity; and
- continued trying to collect a debt from a consumer who had discharged the debt in bankruptcy.
“These debt collectors continued to harass consumers and violate the law after the validity of the debt was called into question, and after the New York Attorney General’s office ordered them to stop,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “By working together with our state partners, we can leverage our resources to stop these illegal tactics.”
According to consumers interviewed by Attorney General Schneiderman and the FTC, the defendants routinely refused to provide information about the debts, as required by federal law, or to investigate the debts’ legitimacy – even after some consumers explained that they did not owe the debts, the debts had been paid in full, or the defendants did not have the authority to collect on the debts. The defendants allegedly collected millions of dollars from consumers using these unlawful tactics.
In addition to Joseph Bella, Diane Bella, and Luis Shaw, the complaint names as defendants National Check Registry, LLC; Check Systems, LLC; American Mutual Holdings, Inc.; Goldberg Maxwell, LLC; Morgan Jackson, LLC; Mullins & Kane, LLC; Buffalo Staffing, Inc., and eCapital, LLC.
Attorney General Schneiderman has been tough on abusive debt collectors, sending a clear message that harassing hardworking consumers will not be tolerated. Since January 1, 2011, his office has led the charge on investigations that have yielded $722,345.20 in penalties and $281,867.34 in restitution. As a result of his no-nonsense approach, at least 11 individuals and their companies have been permanently barred from the debt collection business, two companies have been shut down, three have been barred from attempting to collect on payday loans from New Yorkers, and 12 companies have agreed to refuse requests to repossess the vehicles of New Yorkers when the underlying loan is a payday loan.
The Attorney General thanks Colin Hector, Nikhil Singhvi, and Thomas Widor of the Federal Trade Commission for their assistance with this case.
This case was handled by Assistant Attorney General James Morrissey and Karen Davis, Senior Consumer Fraud Representative in the Buffalo Regional Office, which is led by Michael Russo, Assistant Attorney General In Charge. The Buffalo Regional Office is part of the Division of Regional Offices, led by Marty Mack, Executive Deputy Attorney General for Regional Offices.