The phone calls came from police officers and lawyers threatening arrest and jail if people didn't pay their long-overdue debts.
Two problems: They weren't police officers or lawyers, and the debts were fictitious.
The two men behind the scheme -- Timothy E. Arent and Neil G. Wieczkowski, both of Buffalo -- were sentenced to prison Monday.
"I think your conduct has been manipulative, evil and victimizing," U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny told Arent. "I think its conniving. I think it's deliberate."
Arent, 39, received 12 years in prison, and Wieczkowski, 43, six years. Both men pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges of mail fraud and tax evasion in connection with their fraudulent debt-collection company.
As part of plea agreements, the two men admitted purchasing debtor information from another debt-collection business and then using it to coerce victims into paying money they didn't owe.
"We felt both helpless and powerless," one of the victims, a teacher, said of the $4,500 he and his wife lost. "This was our entire savings."
Over a three-year period between 2006 and 2009, Arent and Wieczkowski received $6.8 million in checks written by more than 1,000 victims across the country.
Arent helped collect that money by impersonating police officers and lawyers and threatening his targets with arrest and jail.
"It was long-running and manipulative," said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. "It was two defendants playing on the vulnerabilities of victims."
Hochul, who was in the courtroom gallery Monday, described the case as one of the largest in Western New York in terms of the number of identified victims.
One of them, according to the government's sentencing memorandum, was a 73-year-old woman who says she lost $60,000 because of a debt supposedly owed by her 71-year-old sister.
Prosecutors said the woman did not ask her sister about the debt because the latter was ill at the time and she did want to upset her.
"Smart people, educated professionals were so terrified, they paid money they didn't owe," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Ellen Kresse.
Kresse then read from a long list of victims, from a mother who lost custody of her son to people who tried to commit suicide.
"My family is shattered, and the families of other victims are shattered," one of the victims, a pediatric chiropractor, told the judge.
Unlike Arent, Wieczkowski was not accused of posing as a police officer or lawyer. He was accused of acquiring the debtor information that led to the scheme.
"I could have walked away, but I didn't," Wieczkowski said. "And I have no one to blame but myself."
Arent also took responsibility for what he described as his "moral meltdown."
"I did the most difficult thing yesterday," he said of a talk he had Sunday with four of his five children. "I told them, 'There's a good chance Daddy won't be coming home.' "
In addition to prison time, the two men were ordered to pay $3.5 million in restitution to the victims.
Hochul said the case should serve as a warning to the public that people posing as police officers over the phone need to be checked out.
He suggested that people ask for a name and badge number and seek confirmation of their status as law enforcement officers before talking with them.