Exactly two weeks before Christmas, the phone rang. Drew Graff was still finishing up another meeting at the time. So, the call went to voicemail before Drew could answer. It was a debt collector calling from Tucker, Albin & Associates.
Commercial debt collection case involving Tucker Albin
Here is a word-for-word transcript of what Drew heard when he listened to the debt collector's voice message a few minutes later:
Mr. Drew Graff*, my name is J. Michael Jones. I'm calling you regarding the pending lawsuit being filed against your company Heating & Air Solutions Group* by Waste Management*. I have reached out several times, and I've gotten no response. I've done my due diligence...uh, the one time I did speak with you, uh, you were kind of shooting from the hip about some dispute that you couldn't explain, and...you ended up hanging up. So, it's becoming apparent that you intended on ripping my client off, and, my friend, that's tantamount to theft, and we're not going to let it slide. Uh, the legal venue on this case is going to be Dallas County, Texas, which means that you're going to have to hire an attorney in Dallas County, or you're going to have to fly your attorney down to Dallas, and, uh, I guarantee you that's going to cost you at least five thousand to get started in responding to this petition. That's half of what you owe. Let's talk about a settlement, and see if we can resolve the matter out of court, or a payment arrangement, and try to help you out here. Uh, 972-372-0323 extension 525, J. Michael Jones, case reference number 988958.
(Note that * denotes names and details that have been changed to protect confidentiality.)
The voice message lasted a total of one minute and nineteen seconds. But even in that short time, the debt collector still managed make at least three false or misleading statements.
First, there was the "pending lawsuit" statement. It was an outright lie. There was no pending lawsuit, and J. Michael Jones knew this. The reason, then, that J. Michael Jones elected to lie by saying that there was a pending lawsuit is because, unfortunately, that kind of deceptive tactic often works to get people to pay debt collectors even when the alleged debt is in dispute. Why is this? Most people don't want anything to do with a lawsuit. So, by introducing this kind of fabricated threat, Tucker Albin's debt collectors get paid more.
"I've gotten no response"
Second, there was the "I've gotten no response" statement. This was not only untrue, but it was even admitted to be untrue by the collector's very next sentence: "the one time I did speak with you." Why, then, would the collector try to characterize Drew Graff's handling of the matter so far as evasive and avoidant? Because collectors know that many people will step forward to defend themselves when they sense that their character is being attacked--that's probably the main reason Tucker Albin's collectors like this tactic. But the other reason is probably this: by diminishing the fact that Drew Graff had previously addressed the alleged debt to J. Michael Jones ("you were kind of shooting from the hip about some dispute that you couldn't explain"), and by basically belittling Drew Graff's stated dispute, the collector knows that he stands a good chance of causing Drew Graff to begin doubting whatever basis Drew Graff might have initially believed he had for lodging a legitimate dispute against the alleged debt. In other words, J. Michael Jones wants Drew Graff to say to himself, man, if J. Michael Jones doesn't find my stated dispute convincing, would anyone else?
"I've done my due diligence"
Third, there was the "I've done my due diligence" statement, which, really, is part of the "the legal venue on this case is going to be Dallas County, Texas" statement. Both statements are untrue. As a general rule, even aside from this case in particular, it is very rare for a debt collection agency like Tucker Albin to actually do any "due diligence" at all at this stage of a case. Why is this? It comes down to economics. All debt collection is a numbers game, but especially the kind of arrangement in which the debt collection agency's only compensation is some contractually agreed upon percentage of the amount of money the debt collector collects. (Tucker Albin advertises on its: “COLLECTION AGENCY GUARANTEE: NO FEE UNLESS MONEY IS RECOVERED.”) That's the model J. Michael Jones was working under in this case, and when that's the model, very seldom will the collector dig too deeply into any one case at this early of a stage. This is why, when J. Michael Jones said that "the legal venue on this case is going to be Dallas County, Texas," it's quite possible that he did not actually know that this was not a true statement--because it's quite likely that J. Michael Jones never read the underlying contract between Heating & Air Solutions Group and Waste Management, which specifically provided that the venue for any dispute will be in the county where the service was rendered, which, in this case, was almost a thousand miles and three states away from Dallas County, Texas. Aside from the "numbers game" explanation, though, why would J. Michael Jones specifically say that the lawsuit would have to be fought in Dallas County, Texas? Well, mainly, it was precisely because Dallas County was a thousand miles and three states away from Drew Graff and his business; so, J. Michael Jones wanted Drew Graff see the tradeoff of not paying J. Michael Jones as something very expensive and very cumbersome to endure. By introducing a much "scarier" scenario to compare against the scenario in which Drew Graff opts to pay Tucker Albin, J. Michael Jones hopes that Drew Graff appraises the pay Tucker Albin option to be the more attractive of the two options. You can see this plainly in how J. Michael Jones estimates the legal costs Drew Graff would have to incur just "to get started."
The problem for J. Michael Jones, then, was that each of the three false or misleading statements highlighted above were provable as such on the evidence:
- There was no documentation of any kind showing that a lawsuit was actually "pending" at the time of this voice message.
- The prior email and call records between Drew Graff and J. Michael Jones, as well as the content of this voice message in particular, showed that Drew Graff had responded to J. Michael Jones prior to this voice message.
- There was no evidence of any kind that J. Michael Jones had done any "due diligence" on this case whatsoever, and the plain language of the contract at issue in this case contradicted J. Michael Jones's statement that "the legal venue on this case is going to be Dallas County, Texas."
Had this been a consumer debt, Tucker Albin would have faced liability for various consumer protections against false and misleading statements by debt collectors. But it was a business debt. So, Tucker Albins's liability fell under the broader umbrella of unfair and deceptive trade practices--which, to be clear, has plenty of teeth, too.
In fact, in the end, J. Michael Jones crawled back into his hole, and the case between Heating & Air Solutions Group and Waste Management ended up settling--with Waste Management paying Heating & Air Solutions Group, not the other way around, as J. Michael Jones had predicted. The total value of the "win" for Heating & Air Solutions Group, in fact, was more than twice the amount J. Michael Jones had alleged that Heating & Air Solutions Group owed to Waste Management: instead of Heating & Air Solutions Group paying Waste Management about $10,000, Waste Management paid Heating & Air Solutions Group about $5,000 and released Heating & Air Solutions Group from an additional contractual obligation totaling about $15,000.
The fact that Heating & Air Solutions Group had notified Waste Management that it intended to introduce the transcribed voicemail above as evidence at trial, and the fact that Waste Management suddenly decided to settle the following day, I think, strongly suggests how comfortable Waste Management was with Tucker Albin's deceptive trade practices on behalf of Waste Management being made a matter of public record.
False and misleading statements
Now, let't take a timeout for a moment to say this: your main takeaway from this article should be that debt collection agencies like Tucker Albin are well-practiced at using false or misleading statements to gain an advantage over alleged debtors; and what I hope you now know, after reading this article, is how to spot some common examples.
Consumer debt collection case involving Tucker Albin
So, to that end, I will give you one more case to drive the point home. This one features an alleged consumer debt (as opposed to the business debt case we just looked at above), and several false or misleading statements by a Tucker Albin debt collector regarding supposedly imminent, criminal charges against the alleged debtor, a recruiter in Maryland named Brandi Sturgill.
The crux of the alleged debt in this case was that Brandi Sturgill had previously signed up to go on a vacation through some other company, and had written a check to pay the deposit required when booking the trip, but had then decided to not go on the vacation. At the same time, for whatever reason, the vacation did said it was not able to cash the check, but said that Brandi Sturgill was still liable for the deposit amount--a claim with which Brandi Strurgill disagreed. Eventually, the vacation company handed the alleged debt to Tucker Albin, and the harassment of Brandi Sturgill began.
The Tucker Albin debt collector working on the case used the name "Renee Barker." Like J. Michael Jones in the case we looked at first, Renee Barker made several false and misleading statements to Brandi Sturgill that court documents (you can click here to request a full PDF copy of the court complaint filed against Tucker Albin) allege Renee Barker intended to make Brandi Sturgill believe that a lawsuit and criminal charges were being filed against her.
Threatening criminal charges
For example, here are some of the text messages from Renee Barker which Brandi Sturgill presented as evidence in her lawsuit against Tucker, Albin & Associates:
Brandi-I am reaching out to the county, now, with a copy of the check you issued and a copy of the contract you had with my client. Will you be hiring council to represent you for this check or are you point of contact? Rene Barker
Do whatever you feel that you need to do. The contract states that you were not able to cancel-it's fine-the contract and the law are on my client's side-I am moving forward with this. You can deal with this check, along with all these other charges, as well. I asked you to let me speak and you refused-I told you where we were and what was happening-hence the recording of the call. Good luck to you, Brandi. You are going to need it.
Again, if you wish to avoid the check being filed, you can pay it NOW. If not, I will have it filed by lunch time.
Again, I will not go back and forth with you. The check will be filed by lunch time. Good luck, Brandi.
Again, the amount owed is $1726.94. You have less than an hour, I would guess, before the filing is complete.
Quick interjection...notice the specific details included in these text messages so far: that Renee Barker was "reaching out to the county" with a copy of the check and the contract; that "The contract states that you were not able to cancel;" that "the contract and the law are on my client's side" (a purported legal conclusion by Renee Barker); that payment to Renee Barker would stop Renee Barker from "hav[ing] it filed by lunch time;" that "The check will be filed by lunch time[;]" that "You have less than an hour, I would guess, before the filing is complete."
Importantly, none of these events were actually happening. At no time did Renee Barker actually do, or intend to do, any of the things Renee Barker had wanted Brandi Sturgill to believe would happen. I will keep going, though, citing more of Renee Barker's text messages in this case:
My client has the right to reject any payment plans. You have no RIGHTS to make payments on this check-you really feel like you are entitled to this and you are not, in any way. But, you seem to be familiar with the legal process so good luck. Rene Barker
I suggest that instead of texting me back and forth-you pay the $1726.94 now and be done with this matter before the paperwork is completed. This can not be a good position for you to be in, currently. Regardless of your "unfair" or "bad" situation. You owe $1726.94. I can provide you wire instructions-my client will only accept certified funds from you-I can't even take a debit/credit card from you for payment.
Brandi-You don't have an attorney-I checked-so, just drop the charade. What is your email address-I will send you all the information since you truly have no clue as to what you agreed to or what you are responsible for.
[M]y client has a right to pursue charges-they can pursue theft, fraud, issuance of a bad check-need I go on?
Okay...so, now Renee Barker is becoming more explicit with the threat of criminal charges if Brandi Sturgill does not pay up.
Again, do you want wire instructions for payment or no? It's an easy question to answer.
Is that a yes or no for bank wire instructions?
[Y]ou have less than 45 minutes-or I will finalize the charges with the county for the issuance of the fraudulent check. I can not be any clearer. The FULL $1726.94 is due-NOW.
Misleading threats of legal action
Again, it highly unlikely that "the charges" had ever been filed. So, if it were true that the charges had never been filed by this time, then the statement that Renee Barker will "finalize the charges with the county" would be deceptive and misleading.
I am done. I will have legal completed today. You can deal with the courts and judge-this is ridiculous. … Good luck to you Brandi. Rene Barker @ 469-424-3033 x 566
Good luck with that, Brandi. Truly, good luck with that. Rene Barker
Pursue harassment or tell the sob story to the judge-I am sure that will work out just fine for you. Again, good luck, Brandi.
Any payments received after 1pm CST, today, Tuesday, July 9th, 2019, will be rejected.
I sent the bankwire instructions. You have an hour and a half to get this done for the $1726.94--anything less or after 1pm CST will not be accepted as payment.
The FULL amount of $1726.94 by 1pm CST today, Tuesday, July 9, 2019.
Nothing else will be accepted.
What a morning that must have been for Brandi Sturgill. Even though Brandi Sturgill's replies are not included here, you can just imagine from the content of Renee Barker's messages what Brandi Sturgill must have been thinking: this person is demanding $1,700 from me today, and is threatening me with various civil and criminal charges if I don't pay; I'm being told that I only have a few hours to pay up before those charges are filed; so, I don't even have time to consult a lawyer to verify that some of these threats and legal conclusions from from Renee Barker are viable and correct; on top of all of this, I really don't even know who this person is; other than a few messages from someone by the name of "Renee Barker," how do I know that this is not some sort of scam to part me with $1,700; it's really not enough time to validate and resolve any of these questions. That is, in fact, the most likely reason that Renee Barker was trying to rush Brandi Sturgill; and, unfortunately, as these text messages from Renee Barker suggest, this is probably not Renee Barker's first time using this tactic. That experience differential, combined with the apparent asymmetry of information, understandably made Brandi Sturgill feel like she was up against the ropes; and Renee Barker likely sensed this, and kept pressing to keep her there:
You can have my information. I have not hidden anything-what do you want to know? You think it's going to help you or change things? It's not but what do you want or need? You want the VP's info-I will give it to you what do you wanna know, Brandi?
Well, actually, ten bucks says that "Renee Barker" is not this person's real name. So, there's that.
How are you being harassed? Did you issue my client a check on a closed
account? Did you defraud my client? Are there laws that protect my client Are there laws that govern the issuance of a bad check? … This is all factual-my client considers it harassment that you won't pay the money you owe them for the Disney trip-but, somehow, you are the victim? How does that work out? Brandi, do I need to call your mom or dad or aunt or uncle or ex husband or in laws and ask them to help you? … What about your new employer?
Ah...the infamous threat to tell all your friends, family, and co-workers tactic, which debt collectors use because they many people would be embarrassed if their friends, family, and co-workers were even made aware of the allegation that they had not paid some debt, regardless of whether that allegation is true or not...
You broke the law when you wrote a check on a closed account. I know what-call me back-let's do a conference call to the county. Let's ask them who is breaking the law.
I am calling you, Brandi. Answer the phone so we can do a conference call to the county.
Brandi-why did you send me to voicemail? Answer so we can do a conference call.
Call me so we can do a conference call to the county and verify the laws, Brandi. Let's do it.
Note that I really am curious who this "county" is that you can call up, on a conference line, no less, to "verify the laws." I've never heard of such a thing, and I'm guessing because no such thing exists, as Renee Barker not only likely knew but also, likely, guessed Brandi Sturgill did not know.
Call me Brandi-let's do that conference call.
Brandi … You have already acknowledged the money is owed in our previous texts. As payment has not been received, I have finalized legal and we are moving forward in regards to the check you issued my client on a closed account. Again, they have the right to charge you 3x the original amount of the check and are pursuing ALL their legal remedies. Good luck to you, Brandi. Rene Barker @ 469-424-3033 x 566
Tucker Albin sued under Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Texas Debt Collection Act, and the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act
In Brandi Sturgill's lawsuit complaint against Tucker Albin, she alleged, through her attorney, that...
- "The statements above were false, deceptive and misleading in that neither Tucker Albin, nor the original creditor on the Account, was going to file criminal charges against Plaintiff."
- "The statements above implied that Plaintiff had committed a crime, when she had not[;]"that "The statements above implied that she would be sued on the Account when neither Tucker Albin nor the creditor on the Account had the present intention of suing Plaintiff on the Account at the time these statements were made."
- "The statements above threatened, or implied a threat, to contact other individuals to discuss the account with them for the purpose of embarrassing and humiliating Plaintiff."
- "These false statements were intended to make Plaintiff believe that he was being sued or that she was going to face criminal charges for failing to repay the Account."
- "The language used by Tucker Albin in the telephone communications described above would cause the least sophisticated consumer to believe that Tucker Albin intended to do the things threatened as detailed above."
- "Tucker Albin knew that the information provided to Plaintiff was false."
- "Tucker Albin told Plaintiff the above-described false information in order to trick, deceive and manipulate Plaintiff into transmitting money to Tucker Albin."
- "Plaintiff did not know that the information conveyed to her was false."
So, that's Tucker Albin's playbook, the result of which in this case was Tucker Albin being sued for deceptive trade practices, in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) U.S.C. § 1692, et seq., the Texas Debt Collection Act (“TDCA”) Tex. Fin. Code § 392.001, et seq., and the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (“TDTPA”) Tex. Bus. & Comm. Code § 17.01, et seq.
Might I suggest that Tucker do a conference call with "the county" to "verify the laws" in this matter. Just a thought...