Illustration by B T Livermore

ONE DAY LAST SEPTEMBER, Janis Toohey answered her office phone and the person on the other end of the line demanded an unspecified sum of money. "He said that I had better send money or I would be publicly arrested and, quote, 'Misery would fall upon me,'" recalled Toohey in front of an Oregon Senate hearing committee in February. "I hung the phone up and he immediately called back."

The sinister phone call was not the mafia or a blackmailer, but someone much more mundane: a debt collector. In the last 10 years, the number of debt collection agencies in Oregon has more than tripled. There are specific laws limiting what debt collectors can do to collect unpaid money, but thanks to a loophole in Oregon law, there is currently no state agency charged with enforcing rules against debt harassment.

It turned out that Toohey didn't owe any money. But that did not stop the debt collector from calling her office eight to 10 times a day threatening her with arrest if she didn't mail a check out immediately. Finally, her boss had to step in and change Toohey's phone number.

The only thing people who are illegally being harassed by debt collectors can currently do to fight back is to sue the company harassing them. But since the vast majority of the debts supposedly owed are only several hundred to several thousand dollars, consumer advocates say that for most people it is not worth the time and money to hire a lawyer.

"There are laws that [debt collection] industries are supposed to follow and there's no cop on the beat to enforce the law," explains Our Oregon advocate Angela Martin, whose consumer advocacy group is pushing for change.

Martin hopes a new bill, which moved out of a house committee in Salem last Friday, March 20, will allow the state to crack down on debt collection harassment. The bill, the Unlawful Trade Practices Act, would put enforcement of the current law into the hands of Attorney General John Kroger's office. Kroger says the legal change would not cost any more than the current system, since his office already has consumer protection investigators on staff.

"Some people are being browbeaten into paying more than they owe. We at the Department of Justice can't do anything about it when [debt collectors] break the law," says Tony Green, communications director for Kroger. "These agencies have a business model that requires collecting as much money as you possibly can. To survive, you've got to have some aggressive tactics."

Gerald Shepard, a Eugene doctor, received 10 to 20 calls daily last summer, hounded by debt collectors for money owed by someone with a similar last name, and for someone who had his same phone number 20 years ago. Shepard told the Senate committee shaping the bill that when he asked one of the incessant callers for their company's name and address, the caller replied, "You want our address? It's 1313 Mockingbird Lane, Transylvania, Pennsylvania."

Another time when Shepard says he complained of receiving a mistaken-identity call at 4 am, the debt collector at the other end of the line said, "I can fix our records, but first I need to ask you some questions. Do you fuck your wife very often?" That was when Shepard says he decided to file an official complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

In the last decade, debt collector harassment has topped the list of Oregon consumer complaints. In 2008, the attorney general's office received 1,088 written complaints alleging that certain debt collection companies called constantly, used racial epithets, or threatened arrest. This year so far, 208 people have complained to the office.

And these are "just the tip of the iceberg," according to Kroger, who testified in the Senate in late February, noting that the people who take the time to call or write in are probably just a handful of those actually experiencing problems.

The morning that he testified before the Senate's Consumer Protection Committee about the bill, Kroger himself received a mistaken debt collection call on his private BlackBerry demanding $437 from someone named Louise. Kroger asked to have his number taken off their list. "They said they'd do so, but the person said, 'You know, we have these phone numbers in our database and we have no idea who they belong to,'" recalled Kroger.