Eleven individual debt collectors who worked for a Buffalo firm that was shut down by the state in June were arrested and charged with grand larceny Tuesday, while a 12th person is being sought by police.
The individuals, who are accused of extortion, allegedly participated in improper and illegal debt-collection practices, posing as law enforcement officials and threatening to have consumers thrown in jail unless they immediately paid off debts they supposedly owed, state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo announced.
The arrests are part of Cuomo's ongoing investigation into unlawful tactics by debt collectors in violation of state and federal laws to protect consumers.
And they are the first -- but not necessarily the last -- instance of employees being arrested and charged with crimes for overly aggressive collection tactics, Cuomo said during a news conference at Hilbert College. The site was selected because the school teaches a program in economic crimes.
"These tactics are illegal. If you do this, we will find out, and we will find you," Cuomo said. "If you are participating in the conduct, it is not enough to say you were just doing the job."
Debt collection is a major employer in Western New York. More than 120 debt collection firms operate in Erie and Niagara counties, employing more than 5,200 people, according to the state Labor Department.
The 12 individuals -- 10 from Buffalo, one from Cheektowaga and one from Depew -- all worked for one or more of the debt collection companies owned by Buffalo resident Tobias Boyland, whose operation was closed in June under a court order obtained by Cuomo. At the time, Cuomo accused Boyland of being one of the most "egregious" violators of debt collection laws.
Boyland was arrested on gun charges, after state investigators and Erie County sheriff's deputies found him carrying a loaded weapon when they came with a search warrant.
He is out on bail, but the charge is pending, and Cuomo said Tuesday that additional charges are still possible regarding his debt collection business.
Since that case was announced, Cuomo's office has amassed more than 1,000 complaints against Boyland and his companies, from across the state and across the country.
"We are committed to this investigation," Cuomo said. "We want to send a signal that we have the resources, and to the extent that we find the behavior, we will prosecute."
Cuomo has sued other debt collection agencies for abusive practices, shutting some down while requiring others to make changes. But Tuesday marked the first time individual collectors were charged.
Cuomo's office obtained arrest warrants for the 12 employees, and worked with Erie County sheriff's deputies to take them into custody. Two surrendered, eight were arrested at their homes, and one was arrested near his home.
The 12 employees were arraigned Tuesday in Cheektowaga Town Court on multiple counts of fourth-degree grand larceny, a class E felony that carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison for each count. One individual remains at large, but "we're working to arrest him," said Robin L. Baker, Cuomo's executive deputy attorney general for criminal justice.
The defendants are: Tina Almond, 30, of Marsdale Road, Cheektowaga; Jeremy Hapka, 22, East Rouen Drive, Cheektowaga; Andrew Brzyski, 25, of Mary Lou Lane, Depew; and, from Buffalo, Marcus Brown, 32, of Hoyt Street; Boris Burch, 49, of Kenmore Avenue; Rhonda DeSousa, 44, of Thornton Avenue; Kenneth MacGregor, 33, of Hodge Avenue; Danielle Miller, 33, of Highgate Avenue; Tracey Pritchett, 39, of Humboldt Parkway; Jammiea Simpson, 35, of Elmer Avenue; Bennie Davis, 47, of Howard Street; Meghan Williams, 30, of Heussy Avenue.
MacGregor has not been taken into custody.
According to the felony complaints, the defendants are charged with stealing tens of thousands of dollars from consumers across the country. They're accused of using false law enforcement identities and threatening "terrified consumers" with criminal charges, in order to coerce them into giving up credit card numbers, authorizing withdrawals from checking accounts, wiring money or sending money orders.
They are accused of threatening to arrest consumers in front of their children or at work, and threatening to take their children to Social Services. They also falsely tell consumers they were being sued in civil court, the complaint said.
In fact, the debts often did not exist, were significantly inflated, had been previously discharged by a bankruptcy, or had passed the statute of limitations for collection, the complaint said.
And the collectors used calling technology that allowed them to mask their location, with the calls showing up as coming from local area codes around the country to support the claims that they were from local law enforcement.
Cuomo noted that he is not excusing debtors from paying what they owe. But just as they have an obligation to pay, collectors have an obligation to obey the law, he said.
"Just because a person owes a debt doesn't mean they lose their rights," Cuomo said. "Debt collection agencies don't have the right to violate the law."
Cuomo also said he is working with State Sens. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, and William T. Stachowski, D-Lake View, who were present at the news conference, to look at additional legislative action to strengthen enforcement.