February 22, 2012, 5:43 a.m.
Federal regulators warned of a new scam in which so-called phantom debt
collectors harass people into paying bills they don't even owe, typically
preying on Americans already burdened with financial problems.Officials said Tuesday that
they had shut down a Villa Park operation that they alleged in a lawsuit
fraudulently collected about $5 million in phantom debts. In a lawsuit filed by
the Federal Trade Commission, a court froze the assets of American Credit
Crunchers, an affiliated company called Ebeeze and their owner, Varang K.
The FTC alleged that the companies used callers in India, who often posed as
law enforcement officers or other government officials, to threaten people with
arrest, a lawsuit or the loss of their job if they didn't repay online payday
But the companies did not make the loans and had no right to collect the money,
the agency said.
A phone number for American Credit Crunchers was not working Tuesday, and its
website had been shut down. Thaker did not return a call seeking comment.
Since at least January 2010, Thaker's companies somehow obtained personal
information from the loan applications and used it to try to collect money, the
agency said. During one eight-month period, the companies made 8 million calls
to consumers seeking repayments of debts.
In some cases, they called people who applied for loans but didn't take them
out. Still, the threatening calls, in some cases purporting to be from the
fictitious Federal Department of Crime and Prevention, intimidated people into
paying money to avoid arrest or embarrassment, the agency said.
"This is a brazen operation based on pure fraud," said David Vladeck,
director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Under federal and state laws, legitimate debt collectors must provide people
with written notice of the amount owed, the names of creditors and the debtors'
rights, the agency said. It issued a warning on its website about the fake debt
But the warnings came too late for JanLaree DeJulius of Las Vegas.
She was called in April 2010 by someone claiming to be from the Federal
Government Department of Crime and Prevention and demanding repayment of a $763
payday loan her ex-husband had received a few months earlier. The loan already
had been paid off.
The caller said that if the loan wasn't repaid immediately, DeJulius would be
arrested at her workplace, her wages would be garnisheed and an expensive
lawsuit would be filed, she said. The caller had a lot of personal information
about DeJulius, including her Social Security number and date of birth, she
"It was intimidating enough that I didn't want to go through that. I said,
'I'll pay you whatever it takes,'" DeJulius said in an FTC news
She set up an installment repayment plan that allowed American Credit Crunch to
charge her credit card $163 in June 2010 and to take $120 more a few weeks
later with the notation DebtCollect on her account.
A few months later she got another call seeking additional money, and then heard
a news report about fake debt collectors. Her credit card company reimbursed
her for the $163 payment.
She then got a voice mail in August 2010 on her home, work and mobile phones
from a person identifying himself as Officer Black of the Bureau of Crime
Identification, who warned her she would face "severe legal
consequences," including arrest, if she did not call back. DeJulius said
she ignored the calls.
"They're scum," she said of the companies. "They're not going
after anybody who has a lot of money.... It seems like they go after the most
An archived version of the American Credit Crunchers website said it was a
nationwide debt collection agency. "Persuasiveness, persistence and
professionalism are the standards our collectors and attorneys pride themselves
on," the website said.
The Online Lenders Alliance, a trade group for Internet payday lenders, has
issued a consumer alert warning people about fraudulent debt collection scams.
The alliance said it has been working with federal, state and local authorities
to stop the scams, which in some cases involved callers claiming to be
celebrities, such as Denzel
Washington and Steve
"Scam artists pretending to be legitimate debt collectors or law
enforcement officials are terrorizing consumers, causing unsuspecting victims
to lose thousands of dollars, in direct violation of the Fair Debt Collection
Practices Act," the alert said.
Scam operators used personal data from consumers who had applied for short-term
loans from payday lenders, bullying, threatening them into paying debts they
didn't owe, FTC alleges