6/29/07

The Afni Collections, Inc. Scam

Phony Express
If you’ve come across this blog after searching for “Afni Collections” or “Afni Collections, Inc.” because you think that you’re being scammed after receiving a collections notice for a telecommunications company such as Verizon, you’ve come to the right Website. Before I explain the purpose of this site, however, I have to say something to you immediately:

Do not pay a single cent to Afni Collections, Inc.

Located in Bloomington, Illinois, Afni Collections, Inc. has been sending fake collection notices to people all over the United States—possibly even to Canada—hoping that someone is willing to take the bait and give them money that isn’t actually owed. In some cases the bill had been a legitimate one many years ago but has since been paid off; in other cases—myself included—Afni sent collection notices for Verizon bills that simply never existed in the first place.

If you do a Google search for Afni, you find yourself reading the following words: rip-off; scam; fraud; bogus; illegal. A recent consumer advice column in the Miami Herald contained the following question and answer:



• Q: I received a bill from Afni Inc., a collection agency, for $475.56 I ostensibly owe to Verizon Select Services. I haven’t used Verizon since 1998.

Since I have never left anything unpaid, I wanted to know where such information was coming from. After attempting to figure things out, Afni sent me a new bill for $240.45.

Because I was afraid to have my credit ruined, I paid it.

Is this a scam? Can Action Line tell me what I should have done?

Gerardo Martinez,
Hialeah

• A: You shouldn’t have paid that bill. With no documentation that you owed anything, Afni was just hoping you would fall for the trick.

On June 21, the Federal Trade Commission issued a press release to warn consumers about extortion schemes such as this. It focused on an English-language instruction course—Ingl├ęs con Ritmo—that was in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by falsely claiming that debts were owed. The scheme was targeting Hispanics.

“Lying to consumers about debts they don’t owe and harassing and threatening them when they don’t pay are illegal business practices, period,” Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said on the FTC website. “We will aggressively pursue companies that use these tactics to extort money from consumers.”

At ripoffreport.com, Afni is well known. We found about 255 reports from consumers throughout the country who have been in situations similar to yours. Afni asks them to pay bills dating back to the 1990s from different Verizon companies. Many of the consumers said that when they protested, the collection agency backed off.

“We sue [Afni] all the time for failing to abide by the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Fair Debt and Collection Practices Act,” Miami consumer lawyer Samira Ghazal said.

Beyond that, Bob Elek, a Verizon spokesman, said company records didn’t reflect the account numbers you provided.

Verizon Select Services is no longer an active company. Any outstanding bills were purchased by a collection agency long ago, but, to the best of Elek’s knowledge, Afni wasn’t one of them.

“They [the outstanding bills] may have been resold, but, short of that, I don’t know how it ended up with that information,” he said.


As an update to this Q-and-A, a search for “Afni” on ripoffreport.com yielded 263 complaints—up from the 255 only a few days earlier.

The Website complaintsboard.com has dozens upon dozens of similar stories (210 complaints, to be exact). In some cases people have attempted to contact Afni via telephone, hoping to clear things up. My advice to you is to avoid telephone contact with them whenever possible; utilize the U.S. Postal Service to retain documentation of everything that they send you and everything that you send them.

Return to Sender
I’m not an attorney, but it’s crucial that you send Afni Collections, Inc. a letter within 30 days of your receiving the fraudulent notice to dispute the validity of the debt that they’re telling you to pay. Be sure to tell them that you’re requesting the validation in its entirety pursuant to the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Be sure to tell them that your letter is not a request for address validation. Be sure to request that all communications be in the form of paper documentation that is sent via the United States Postal Service, and that you will not do business—and I use that term loosely in Afni’s case—with them via telephone, e-mail, etc. Be sure to clearly state your dispute with the bill; tell them why you’re disputing its validity. Be sure to request a complete, itemized bill for your alleged debt (including proof that you ever entered into an agreement with any company for which they claim to be collecting). If you’re someone who recognizes the alleged debt as one that you’ve paid off many years ago, be sure to inform Afni of your state’s statute of limitations concerning debt and remind them that their notice is far beyond that time period (this time period differs from state to state). Finally, be sure to send the letter by certified mail, return-receipt requested (this should probably end up costing you around $5.60 in postage—sorry).

Just as a reminder, if Afni Collections, Inc. didn’t contact you by phone, there’s a good chance that they don’t have your phone number. Don’t give it to them; if you do (and this includes any attempts to contact them by phone), there’s a good chance that they’ll harass you over the telephone from that point forward. It’s also worth avoiding the telephone because three things have been mentioned several times on many of the complaint Websites: (1) the Afni phone is busy or simply is not answered; (2) the operators are obnoxious and will threaten you; and (3) they tell you that they can “help” you by assisting you in paying the debt over the phone—the same debt that you never owed in the first place.

Another piece of advice is just as important as sending Afni a letter disputing the validity of your alleged debt: sending as many officials notification of this fraud as possible. Contact the Illinois Attorney General; contact your state attorney general if you’re in another state (which many of us are); contact the attorney general of the state in which the phony phone number is located if this happens to be your situation; contact your state and federal representatives; contact your state bureau of consumer protection (or similar agency); and be sure to fill out a mail fraud report with the United States Postal Inspection Service.

To make it easier, here is the exact text from the letter which I had to use on not one but two occasions (remember to use your alleged balance, the alleged phone number, and your own account number where I've used Xs and 5s):
Afni Collections, Inc.
P.O. Box 3427
Bloomington, IL 61702-3427

To whom it may concern:

This letter is being sent to formally dispute the validity of an alleged debt, in its entirety, of $XX from a creditor known as “[insert name of creditor here]” for an alleged disconnected telephone number of “(555)-555-5555” (Afni Collections account number XXXXXXXXX-XX). Pursuant to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, I am formally requesting validation—in full—of the alleged debt on which you are attempting to collect.

Be aware that this letter is not a request for address validation; this letter is to formally dispute the validity of the alleged debt that is listed on the collection notice and demand that the debt validation is provided to me, by you, in its entirety in accordance with both federal and [your state name here] laws.

All communications and correspondence pertaining to this matter are to be carried out via the United States Postal Service at the mailing address found below and not by way of telephone, e-mail, or any form of electronic communication. Furthermore, all forms of correspondence pertaining to this matter received at and sent from said mailing address have and will be photocopied and retained for any and all future legal proceedings if necessary.

My specific dispute with the Afni Collections, Inc. alleged debt is based on the fact that I have never held any type of account with [creditor name here] at any time. Moreover, I have never had an account with [creditor name here] in any way, shape, or form at any given time, nor have I ever resided in the city of [city name here] in which the alleged disconnected telephone number listed on the Afni Collections, Inc. collection notice is located. As such, I dispute the validity of this debt and formally request evidence of validation in accordance with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. I am requesting that the following information be supplied by your agency: a detailed description of the product and/or service for which this alleged debt is owed; an itemized description of how the alleged debt was calculated; and copies of all documents showing that I agreed to purchase any product and/or service in addition to paying for a product and/or service from a creditor known as “[creditor name here].”

Be advised that the hardcopy and photocopies of the Afni Collections, Inc. collection notice and all future documentation pertaining to this matter have and will be retained and/or photocopied for use by my attorney and each agency that I am contacting regarding this situation.

Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.

NAME
ADDRESS
If your dispute was different than mine, remember to change your letter to Afni appropriately.

Spin City
Don’t be intimidated by anyone who suggests that all collections agencies are honest and that if you get a collections notice from them, you must owe them because they say so. This is a tactic that has become commonplace among Afni employees and their family members (Afni is putting bread on their table, after all). It’s obviously not to the same degree of severity, but it reminds me of the blind support that Adolf Hitler received from his Nazi storm-troopers who really thought that they were doing a good deed by trying to exterminate an entire religion during the 1930s and 1940s.

A few weeks ago, an Illinois newspaper covered the story of a malicious letter that was sent to Afni’s headquarters. The mailing was deemed a biohazard and it was suggested that a disgruntled recipient of an Afni notice decided to send them his hemorrhoid (I’m not making this up—I swear). Anyway, comments that were left at the bottom of the story were back-and-forth banter between people who pointed out the scam that Afni is pulling and Afni loyalists. (The page has unfortunately been taken down, but a similar story can be found here.)

While some of the pro-Afni comments were from folks who were single moms, trying to make ends meet, or people with limited skills trying to break into the work force (ethics be damned), some of the comments that were left were not only belligerent but downright sad.

One person who signed their name as “Current employee” wrote: “Those who bash Afni probably had a bad experience, most likely due to their own actions.” Yes, I had a bad experience with Afni, but if you think that getting a bogus collections notice in the mail is because of something that I’ve done, it’s pretty safe to say that you’re not going to be moving up the ladder unless you plan on sleeping with the boss.

Another comment was left by a man using the name “afni employees father”: “for those afni [sic] ‘bashers’ i [sic] say this[:] would you rather our young people deal drugs or participate in gangs to make money, or make an honest living working for every dollar they make? My son works hard for AFNI and in return is provided a decent workplace and a paycheck. I’m sure most of these bashers are losers who have been contacted to pay a debt that get all upset about people actually expecting to be paid for services rendered……imagine that!”

This comment was my favorite for a multitude of reasons (and no, the fact that it appears to have been authored by a second grader isn’t one of them): (1) there’s nothing “honest” about sending out fake collections notices; (2) if those of us who are “bashers” are losers because we’re standing up to crime, so be it—I’ll happily wear the title of “loser”; (3) we’re standing up to this crime because in some cases the debts were already paid and in other cases the debts never existed in the first place; and (4) if your son’s only options in life are down to drug dealing, gangs, or working at Afni, you might have more serious problems on your hands than you realize.

Resources
I’m going to attempt to make a list here of sites that might be of service to you if you’re standing up against the Afni Collections scam. If there are any that you think should be added, let me know.

Federal Trade Commission
• United States Postal Inspection Service mail fraud report: Online or PDF

Spread the Word
Don’t sit back and hope that someone else will take care of the problem. Yes, many of us have contacted the authorities and even our lawyers, but taking the time to communicate with the higher-ups and make them aware that hundreds—if not thousands—of people are being hit with the scam is important. Even more important is to talk about it by word-of-mouth. Tell your relatives; tell your friends; tell your neighbors; hell, even tell your enemies.

Your Turn
Do you have a similar Afni story and want to get it off your chest? Do you have a horror story that’s worse than mine? Are you an Afni employee who is offended that we’re standing up to your company’s unethical, immoral, and illegal tactics? Are you a relative of an Afni employee who is outraged that I’ve used words that are too big for you to understand?

I’m leaving comments open on this blog and I’m leaving it set so that you can use pseudonyms to protect your identity if you fear retaliation. I’m planning on making this the only post for this blog, but I’ll check it periodically and respond to comments if I get the chance.

I reserve the right to remove any comments that are irrelevant to the topic, are spam, or are threatening in nature (other than threatening in a legal sense).