Joseph Ciffa wasn't satisfied using abusive tactics just once in collecting a bad debt, investigators say.
In what came to be known as "re-dos," the Niagara Falls and Kenmore debt collector would use the same fraudulent practices to collect on the same debt a second time, they claim.
Ciffa and five others are charged in a new federal complaint that is certain to cast yet another spotlight on Buffalo's debt collection industry.
“Through an elaborate fraud, the lead defendant in this case preyed on consumers with fear tactics meant to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts that often were not even owed," State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott said in a statement Monday.
In the past, investigators have estimated that the fraudulent activity committed by Ciffa and others resulted in $22 million in income over a four-year period ending in 2015.
Ciffa's prosecution is the latest in a series of debt collection cases, both civil and criminal, that have brought attention to the illegal tactics used by some local businesses.
Often, the allegations at the core of the cases center around practices intended to scare people into making payments on debts they may or may not owe.
"The allegation here is that the defendants committed fraud and that Mr. Ciffa is the leader of the conspiracy," Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura K. O'Donnell said in court Monday.
Investigators say Ciffa's strategy was to pose as a government official, investigator or FBI agent, or to tell victims that he had been retained by the district attorney's office.
In other instances, Ciffa would threaten people with arrest or tell them that an officer was being dispatched to their home, according to court papers.
"We look forward to defending this case," defense lawyer Herbert L. Greenman said Monday.
For Ciffa, who is also charged with fraudulently receiving Medicaid benefits for his family, his appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy was not his first in federal court.
In January of 2015, the Federal Trade Commission and New York State attorney general sued Ciffa and his business. The company was shut down after U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny issued a temporary restraining order halting Ciffa's tactics.
Five months later, Skretny ordered a preliminary injunction against Ciffa's company. The FTC and state attorney general also have asked the judge to end the case and rule in their favor.
Filed by an investigator for Immigration & Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations division, the criminal complaint against Ciffa also implicates five others: Erica Lounsberry, Debbie Seright, Carmelo Collana, Damario Turpin and Shauniqua Rodriguez.
All six defendants were released on bail Monday.