UPDATE: This release was updated to reflect an amended complaint, filed on Oct. 9, 2018, which no longer names The Collection Group as a defendant. The amended complaint is available here.
Companies are still garnishing wages, seizing bank account funds and threatening to foreclose on homes based on thousands of unlawful judgments
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today filed a lawsuit against Wenatchee-based collection agencies and their owner for buying millions of dollars of old debt and suing to collect on the debt without being licensed as collection agencies with the state.
The companies bought the debt for pennies on the dollar and collected on it for up to nine years before obtaining licenses. To this day, they continue to collect on the debt based on unlawfully obtained judgments. Their collection efforts include garnishing wages, seizing bank account funds and threatening to foreclose on homes.
“These debt buyers continue to go after consumers’ homes, wages and bank accounts without legal authorization,” Ferguson said. “Washington law requires debt buyers to be licensed for a reason: to protect consumers.”
The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, asserts the companies solicited and arranged to buy portfolios of old debts of Washington consumers without a license, in violation of the state Collection Agency Act. The companies, owned by Brian Fair, then sued to collect the full face amount of the debts, despite not being licensed as collection agencies as required by law. These violations of the Collection Agency Act also violate the state Consumer Protection Act.
Fair owned two debt-collecting companies: EGP Investments, formed in 2009, and JPRD Investments, formed in 2007, neither of which obtained a collection agency license until 2013. Before they were licensed, the companies bought thousands of debt accounts and unlawfully sued and obtained judgments on the debts of at least 2,800 consumers. The companies are still collecting on unlawfully obtained debts.
Companies like Fair’s are known as debt buyers. Unlike a traditional collection agency, which collects debt on behalf of a creditor who owns the debt, debt buyers purchase debts outright from a creditor for a small fraction of the debt owed.
When debt buyers solicit and purchase old debt accounts, as these companies did, they are required under Washington’s Collection Agency Act to be licensed as collection agencies. Buying debt without a license is legal unless the buyer acts as a collection agency, as these defendants did.
Typically, debt buyers pay less than five cents on the dollar, depending on how old the debt is. For example, if a debt buyer paid four cents on the dollar, they paid just $80 for the right to sue on a $2,000 debt. Because they own the debt, they can collect and keep the full face amount of the debt.
The Washington State Legislature passed the Collection Agency Act in 1971. The purpose of the act is to ensure collection agencies deal fairly and honestly with debtors.
As consumer debt has increased, more debt buyers are collecting debt from Washingtonians. The debt accounts are often sold repeatedly from debt buyer to debt buyer, sometimes with little original documentation or evidence of the debt.
After purchasing old debts for a tiny fraction of the face value, Fair’s companies sued consumers to obtain court judgments requiring consumers to pay the debts. These judgments give the companies leverage to seize a consumer’s assets, such as homes, wages and bank account funds. Because Fair’s debt buyer companies were not licensed collection agencies, these collection judgments were unlawful.
Fair’s companies are currently still collecting on the judgments they obtained without licenses, in violation of the Collection Agency Act and Consumer Protection Act. When garnishing consumers’ wages, Fair’s companies seized and continue to seize up to 25 percent of each paycheck.
In addition to garnishing wages, seizing money from bank accounts and other aggressive collection tactics, the companies have threatened to foreclose on consumers’ homes using the judgments. In King County alone, the companies have recorded more than 390 judgments and have used the judgments to foreclose on consumers’ homes.
Across the state, Fair and his companies have used the unlawful judgments to foreclose on consumers’ homes. For example, Fair and EGP Investments wrote to a homeowner in Lynnwood earlier this year and told her they would foreclose on her home unless she immediately contacted them to pay off the judgment, even though they obtained the judgment illegally in the first place.
She responded to the company with a handwritten note, explaining that her only source of income was a monthly Social Security payment. Fair responded that interest continued to accrue on her debt account and advised her to begin the process of applying for a “reverse mortgage” to pay off the debt.
In addition to failing to acquire a license, at least one of Fair’s companies, JPRD, violated the Collection Agency Act by failing to properly notify consumers about the interest that had accrued on their debts.
Ferguson’s lawsuit asks the court to order that Fair and his companies stop collecting on these illegally obtained judgments and update consumers’ credit reports to remedy the harms.
The lawsuit seeks restitution for consumers harmed by Fair’s actions, in addition to civil penalties and reimbursement of legal costs and fees. The state Consumer Protection Act allows for a civil penalty of up to $2,000 per individual violation.
Assistant Attorneys General Matthew Geyman and Amy Teng are handling the case for the Attorney General’s Office.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Dan Jackson, Acting Communications Director, (360) 753-2716; DanJ1@atg.wa.gov