…millions of Americans are hassled to pay back money they don’t owe. The concept is centuries old: Inmates of a New York debtors’ prison joked about it as early as 1800, in a newspaper they published called Forlorn Hope. But systematic schemes to collect on fake debts started only about five years ago. It begins when someone scoops up troves of personal information that are available cheaply online—old loan applications, long-expired obligations, data from hacked accounts—and reformats it to look like a list of debts. Then they make deals with unscrupulous collectors who will demand repayment of the fictitious bills. Their targets are often poor and likely to already be getting confusing calls about other loans. The harassment usually doesn’t work, but some marks are convinced that because the collectors know so much, the debt must be real.
The problem is as simple as it is intractable. In 2012 a call center in India was busted for making 8 million calls in eight months to collect made-up bills. The Federal Trade Commission has since broken up at least 13 similar scams. In most cases, regulators weren’t able to identify the original perpetrators because the data files had been sold and repackaged so many times. Victims have essentially no recourse to do anything but take the abuse.
Most victims, that is. When the scammers started to hound Therrien, he hounded them right back. Obsessed with payback, he spent hundreds of hours investigating the dirty side of debt. By day he was still promoting ice cream brands and hiring models for liquor store tastings. But in his spare time, he was living out a revenge fantasy. He befriended loan sharks and blackmailed crooked collectors, getting them to divulge their suppliers, and then their suppliers above them. In method, Therrien was like a prosecutor flipping gangster underlings to get to lieutenants and then the boss. In spirit, he was a bit like Liam Neeson’s vigilante character in the movie Taken—using unflagging aggression to obtain scraps of information and reverse-engineer a criminal syndicate. Therrien didn’t punch anyone in the head, of course. He was simply unstoppable over the phone.
Bloomberg Businessweek chronicled in December the story of one of the victims of Joel’s scheme, Andrew Therrien, a salesman from Rhode Island. After a collector threatened Therrien’s wife, he turned vigilante, used the collectors’ tactics against them, unraveled the scam, traced it back to Tucker and reported what he learned to authorities.
Tucker had already been sued by the Federal Trade Commission for making up debts and was ordered in September to pay $4.2 million. He has said that any debt he sold was legitimate. But civil penalties didn’t satisfy Therrien, who spent three years gathering information on Tucker. He said in an interview that the federal charges against Tucker feels like a “huge huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Therrien is just one of millions of people across the country who have been harassed over phantom debt. The plot is profitable because some people make payments, either in a futile attempt to stop the calls or because they are tricked into thinking they owe money. Some collectors call victims’ relatives or coworkers, or make false threats of arrest.