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Connie Prater

FTC reaches settlement on illegal debt collection case

Two women who allegedly harassed Spanish-speaking consumers and tried to collect on debts that didn't exist have settled charges filed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

According to an FTC press release issued today, the women -- Maria Oceguera and her daughter Dulce Rickards -- sold English language courses that they advertised as free except for "shipping and handling fees." Years later, the women went after customers who bought or inquired about the course trying to collect as much as $900 they claim they were owed.

"An overwhelming majority of the consumers who were contacted owed nothing, and yet the defendants routinely engaged in a variety of deceptive debt collection practices," according to the FTC.

A federal judge ordered Oceguera and Rickards to cease operations in 2007, after the FTC began investigating complaints.  The women were charged with violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits harassing debtors, trying to collect on debts that don't exist, falsely claiming to be an attorney, threatening to file lawsuits when not intending to do so and threatening to arrest debtors or seize their property.

The settlement, approved on May 1, 2008, included a $1.1 million fine, but because the defendants claimed they had few assets and could not pay, the judgment was reduced to about $50,000. The court order also bans companies controlled by Oceguera and Rickards from violating provisions of the debt collection law. The companies are: Tono Publishing, Promo Music, Professional Legal Services and Tono Records, doing business as Tono Music.

See related: "Consumer credit woes mean debt collection boom," "Know your rights: the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act," "11 tips for dealing with debt collection," "Sample letters," "Blog: I'm not a deadbeat, but I play one on my cell phone," "Blog: Debt collector calling...and texting...and emailing," "Handling debt collection calls for a dead person's debt"

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