Personal Finance

Consumer watchdog sues law firm that filed 99,000 debt-collection suits

Signage is displayed inside the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 4, 2019.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The nation’s consumer watchdog agency on Friday filed suit against a debt-collection law firm, accusing it of using deceptive practices to get consumers to pay money that they may or may not have owed.

The complaint, filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in U.S. District Court, alleges that Forster & Garbus, of Commack, New York, violated federal law by falsely representing to consumers that its attorneys were meaningfully involved in preparing the collection lawsuits against them — more than 99,000 were filed by the firm between 2014 and 2016.

The suit also claims that the debt collector violated the bureau’s prohibition against deceptive acts and practices due to that lack of attorney involvement.

The bureau is seeking an injunction against Forster & Garbus, as well as disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, restitution to harmed consumers and a civil monetary penalty.

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The suit claims that, by using high-volume litigation tactics, the firm collected money from consumers who may have no longer owed the debt or at least not the amounts claimed in the suits. And although attorneys for Forster & Garbus signed off on each lawsuit filed against a consumer, they had done little review of the merits of any given lawsuit, including checking the veracity of the listed debt owed, the complaint claims.

For instance, the suit says that in 2014, Forster & Garbus filed lawsuits related to about 45,600 accounts yet had original or supporting documentation for less than 20% of them. One attorney at the firm signed complaints for 41,500 of those accounts.

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By 2016, the share of verified debt had jumped to 75% because clients stopped referring accounts until they were able to ensure they were providing enough information to potentially proceed with litigation through Forster & Garbus, the complaint says.

The lawsuits against consumers were filed on behalf of the firm’s clients, which included creditors such as Discover Bank and Citibank, as well as companies that purchase unpaid consumer debt from the original lender or creditor. Several of those debt buyers already agreed to the bureau’s 2015 finding that they had attempted to collect debts — including private student-loan debt — that they either knew or should have known were inaccurate, or could not prove was owed.

The partners of the firm, Richard Forster and Mark Garbus, were unavailable for comment.

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