Debt-Collector Abuse: One Woman's Harrowing Tale

The racist voice mail messages received by one California woman illustrate the abusive practices that Sen. Al Franken and other lawmakers are hoping to end.

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Unsettling audio of a racist and threatening California debt collector has emerged just as Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and George LeMieux (R-Fla.) make the first moves on their End Debt Collector Abuse Act (EDCA). Introduced late Wednesday, the bipartisan bill is a series of amendments to the already established Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), and it would enact sweeping changes to the accounts receivable industry. By clamping down on what debt collectors can do to pursue payment and increasing the minimum punitive damages that unlawful debtors will have to face, the lawmakers hope to end the thuggish tactics a rising number of Americans are facing in the recession.

Americans like Romanda Lucas. Lucas, a 33-year-old single mother from San Diego, is the subject of the insults heard in the recording of a voice mail message that The Root obtained from a source at the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA). In early June of this year, she filled out an online survey gauging her interest in car ownership. A few weeks later, in early July, a salesman from a dealership called Dr Car called to tell her she'd been pre-approved for a loan. Lucas told The Root that she didn't know she'd even applied for a car loan -- in fact, it's now her belief that everyone who fills out that online form ends up "pre-approved" -- but she was excited nonetheless.

Once on the lot, she quickly decided on a 2009 Hyundai Sonata, a sensible midsize sedan that gets 22 miles per gallon in the city, according to the EPA. As Lucas reached for the keys, however, ready to drive away in her new used car, the salesman told her she'd need to pay a $3,000 down payment. Lucas says she hadn't known about any down payment, and certainly not one that large, and that she told the salesman, who also called himself Dr Car, that she couldn't afford the car. That's when he made her an offer: Lucas could write him two checks, each for $1,500. Dr Car would then wait a few weeks to cash the checks so that Lucas could get her financial affairs in order. She agreed, and drove away in the Sonata soon after.

Dr Car cashed the checks about three days later, according to Lucas' attorney, Robert Hyde, who is now helping Lucas file a suit against Dr Car. When the first check bounced, as Lucas told him it would, the calls started. "He called all day, every day," says Lucas. "And when I checked the voice mails, they were the most horrifying things I've heard in my life."

 

For his part, Dr Car, whose real name is Mohammed Shakoori, will say only that Lucas' story is "nothing but lies." "She's written hundreds of bad checks all over town," he told The Root. Shakoori also claims that he never verbally harassed Lucas or called her racial slurs. "I've never abused anybody," he says. "I'm too old for that."

Still, Lucas says racial slurs were a constant theme in Dr Car's messages. When he couldn't reach her, he called her family, her friends and even her office. The harassment got so bad that her son was having nightmares. Eventually, she changed the locks on her doors at home.

It sounds far-fetched, but according to experts, Lucas' ordeal is not unique. "The accounts receivable industry will say that this case is just an outlier," says Ira Rheingold, executive director at NACA. "But we have a debt-collection system that is out of control."

Along with the National Consumer Law Center, Rheingold's organization helped Sen. Franken's legislative team draft the EDCA amendments. At a time when more Americans are in debt than ever before, Rheingold says, the act will be a godsend for many, especially minorities, whose disproportionate vulnerability to debt also makes them more vulnerable to debt collectors. "The people who have been most abused by the bad financial practices -- be they predatory loans, payday loans, bad car deals -- are African Americans," he says. "The worst products really were targeted at African Americans and Latinos, and so [those communities] are the most likely to have accumulated debt that they really shouldn't have owed because of the bad products that they were sold."

Ultimately, Lucas and Shakoori weren't ever able to come to an agreement. The car was impounded, and a court will now settle the pending lawsuit. Asked what he thinks went wrong in the Lucas transaction, Shakoori sounds resigned. "Since the economy got bad," he says, "everybody is trying to rip everybody, pretty much."