Jason Trowbridge (shown at the right) was a cocky, vulgar debt collector who broke federal laws. He illegally gained access to private information, terrorized people and ultimately participated in a series of bizarre and dangerous schemes that could have easily gotten someone killed.
Trowbridge, who lived in Houston, Texas, worked for the small debt collection firm Lindquist and Trudeau. He, and four co-workers, were involved in a conspiracy that reported hundreds of phony emergencies to police.
In one case, a debt collector pretended to be a debtor who was high on drugs, had murdered family members and vowed to murder again. When the local SWAT team showed up at the debtor's house, police prepared for the worst, but discovered that the alleged murderer was also a victim of the hoax. The tactic was supposed to scare the debtor and his family into paying off their debts.
The U.S. Attorney's office said the case represented "hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses and the disruption of hundreds of victims' lives."
Trowbridge didn't go that far with the victims in our story, but he made obscene, harrassing calls and threatened to take away the home of Betty Duban, a wheelchair-bound grandmother (shown at left) who didn't owe his client a penny. Trowbridge's real target was Ms. Duban's son Tom, who refused to pay an $800 bill that he claimed he didn't owe. Eventually, Tom Duban won a $20,000 judgement against Trowbridge and never had to pay the $800 bill.
A year ago, Trowbridge pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges.
In May, a federal judge sentenced Trowbridge to five years in prison.
Obviously, Trowbridge is an extreme example of a reckless, lawless debt collector. However, one out of every four complaints to the Federal Trade Commission are about debt collectors.
During the last five and a half years, consumers have filed more than 600 pages of complaints with the FTC against Client Services, a massive St. Charles-based debt collection company. In those complaints, the consumers identify 98 Client Services employees by name. The complaints typically focus on allegations of harrassment, abusive language by Client Services' representatives and threats.
I made repeated calls to Client Services, but never got a phone call returned. So, we caught up with John Kastner, the company owner and Chief Executive Officer, according to the Client Services website.
Kastner declined to answer any questions about his company or its history of consumer complaints. The next day, Kerry Simpson, the company's General Counsel, called and offered to make someone available for an interview, or maybe not.
It was confusing.
Simpson insisted on getting a list of questions so she could review them and see if Client Services wanted to give me an off-the-record interview. Then, if the off-the-record interview went well, Client Services would let me interview someone on-camera.
I had never been presented with an offer quite like that one. And, I told her so. She asked me how long I had been a reporter, and assured me that her approach was the way every politician, government agency and company dealt with the media.
Of course, that's simply not true. And I told her that too.
Not long after that Ms. Simpson and I traded e-mails.
She insisted that Client Services wasn't getting fair treatment in the story. In fact, she denied that the company had knowledge of any consumer complaints filed with the FTC.
"You claim to have copies of the complaints filed with the FTC. While we have calls in to the FTC to determine if there is any truth to your claim, you could speed the process by simply providing us with the information so that we may address each one for you," Ms. Simpson wrote.
Again, the FTC provided News 4 Investigates with more than 600 pages of consumer complaints about Client Services. In addition, the Better Business Bureau has received more than 200 complaints about the company during the last two years. The BBB gives Client Services an "unsatisfactory" rating because it didn't resolve all of the complaints. In an e-mail, Ms. Simpson denied Client Services has any unresolved complaints.
Today, I faxed five complaints to her, but she refused to respond because the consumers were not identified by name (the FTC would not disclose their identities) and she said it couldn't be determined if those complaints were resolved.
In another e-mail, also sent today, Ms. Simpson wrote that Client Services has handled "in excess of 3,000,000 accounts being handled by CSI over the past 3 years." In addition, she emphasized that the level of consumers complaints filed with the FTC and the Better Business Bureau is very low "when you consider the nature of our business."
Ms. Simpson insists that "we take all complaints seriously and do everything that we can do to resolve them."
So, what are debt collectors not supposed to do, and how can you avoid a horror story like the ones involving Jason Trowbridge?
Let's begin with the basics: Debt Collectors are NOT allowed to harrass, threaten or lie to you in order to collect a debt.
Here's the link for the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the federal law that regulates the conduct of debt collectors.
So, how do you avoid the debt collector?
That's an easy one. Pay the bills on time. But sometimes people have financial problems that make it nearly impossible, which is why many experts say you should try to work out a payment plan as soon as possible with your creditors.
Let's say you owe a department store $1,000, but can't make the payment for three months. Several experts tell me that the store will often work with you to avoid the expense and hassle of hiring someone to get it from you. It may not work this way for you, but it's fairly common. You can also work out payment plans with debt collection companies.
Now, what do you do if a guy like Trowbridge won't leave you alone?
The first step is to document every phone call, letter or e-mail from the debt collector. This will create a paper trail and provide important evidence if you need it. You should take detailed notes: what did the person say, when did he/she call you, how many times did the collector call, who else did he/she call and any other information that could be helpful.
You can also hire an attorney.
What you should NOT do is simply take it.