The Times West Virginian

Business

July 15, 2012

‘Coercive’ techniques

California firm’s unlawful debt-collection practices stopped

FAIRMONT — Christina Skiles’ complaint against DP & Associates helped West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw stop the company’s unlawful debt-collection practices in the state.

DP & Associates, from Irvine, Calif., has agreed to cancel all its accounts in the state and provide refunds for all the debts it collected. Approximately $1.7 million in relief will go to 124 consumers in West Virginia.

Skiles, from Grafton, said DP & Associates initially called her mother-in-law in February. The representative informed her that Skiles owed them money, and claimed that a warrant was out for Skiles’ arrest and officials were waiting for her at the Taylor County Courthouse.

Her mother-in-law knew that couldn’t be true and something was wrong because she recognized the phone number as being from California. After talking to her mother-in-law and getting the phone number, Skiles called DP & Associates back herself.

The man on the other end of the phone threatened to take her to court because of her debt. Next, Skiles’ husband talked to DP & Associates and was notified that his wife had to pay $3,000 by the end of the month.

“This is just not right,” Skiles said about what she was thinking at the time. “This guy kept calling. He was very rude.”

The person from DP & Associates was hateful and disrespectful, she said, and she was suspicious and wondered if it was a scam. After doing some research, Skiles confirmed that the man was calling from a California phone number.

The individual kept saying she owed different amounts of money, going from $8,000 to $5,000 to $3,000, which made Skiles believe he didn’t know what he was talking about. He acted like there was nothing she could do to stop this harassment, she said.

“You don’t know our attorney general — he sticks up for us,” she said she told him.

Skiles proceeded to file a complaint against the company with the state Office of the Attorney General, which informed her that DP & Associates couldn’t do anything to her without a court order. She said the office’s staff was very helpful and friendly.

Skiles learned that DP & Associates had already taken money from many other people in West Virginia. She said she was glad she could help prevent more individuals from becoming victims.

She encouraged everyone to file a complaint with the attorney general if they are in a similar situation. She also makes it a point to go on the Internet to check out any strange, suspicious phone numbers that call.

“It’s very irritating,” Skiles said. “There’s too many scams going around.”

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Stonestreet said the office didn’t receive a lot of complaints about DP & Associates, but the staff was very concerned about the practices it was hearing about.

“The few complaints that we did have showed a very disturbing collection technique,” he said. “(Skiles’) complaint by far was the most alarming.”

DP would often call people and threaten to put a warrant out for their arrest or arrest them if they didn’t pay the money they owed by the end of the day. Many times the people wouldn’t even remember what the debt was from, Stonestreet said.

The company’s name, DP & Associates, is misleading or a misrepresentation itself because it sounds like a law firm, he said. With a name like this, the collection agency could scare people more and pretend it was legitimate.

The Attorney General’s Office went through mediation with DP & Associates to try to resolve the complaints, but nothing was accomplished. The company did not respond to a letter Stonestreet sent about their practices, but he was finally able to enter into a dialogue and exchange correspondence with the vice president and another company representative.

He said DP provided him with information about what debts they owned and had attempted to collect in West Virginia. After acquiring this debt portfolio with everyone’s names and addresses, the Attorney General’s Office did an investigation and interviewed some of the people.

A lot of the individuals hadn’t yet been contacted by DP & Associates to pay their debt, but the company had unlawfully harassed some people, Stonestreet said. DP also lacked a license to collect debts in the state.

In May, the Attorney General’s Office and DP & Associates came to a pure consumer citizen benefit settlement, which focused on getting everyone’s debts canceled and giving refunds, and entered into an “Assurance of Discontinuance,” he said. DP could have chosen to come into compliance by getting a debt collection license and following all West Virginia laws prohibiting harassment of customers, but instead decided to cancel all West Virginia debts and stop business here.

“This is a company that was just being too reckless in their collection activity, and unfortunately it’s an industry that has some rogue companies that do this,” Stonestreet said.

He said some of these debt collection companies that harass and annoy consumers are very good at getting money from people without providing an account of the debt. Individuals are afraid, and they shouldn’t be coerced into paying debts they might not be legally required to pay.

“Not everyone is aware of their rights when these coercive debt collection techniques are being used against them,” Stonestreet said.

Debt collection companies can’t tell people that they will be arrested under any circumstances, even if an individual owes a debt, he said. There is also a statute of limitations for credit card debt.

Many people don’t complain when they become victims or don’t realize that the Attorney General’s Office can help, Stonestreet said. Consumers can call the Consumer Protection Division at 800-368-8808 or visit www.wvago.gov online to file a complaint if they have been victimized.

He said protecting citizens against companies that violate their rights has always been a priority for McGraw.

“Since Attorney General McGraw has been in office, he’s really been vigilant in protecting the rights of consumers in the realm of debt collection and debt settlement,” Stonestreet said. “He’s really been a national leader in setting the tone for the fair treatment of people.”

DP & Associates could not be reached for comment for this story.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.

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