We are all targets of various scam artists who prey on the gullible and the naïve in order to fleece them. But when one such debt collector called Andrew Thierren’s wife falsely claiming that they had an outstanding debt that needed to be repaid, his first reaction, like that of many of us, was to hang up and ignore it. But when the person called again and threatened his wife with rape that was going too far. This normally genial salesman got furious and launched an intense solo investigation to find out whom this person was and who they worked for, and in the process uncovered a vast network of scammers.
Somewhere—at the top of a ladder of dirty debt collectors that Therrien would spend the next two years relentlessly climbing—a man named Joel Tucker had no idea what was coming.
Therrien had been caught up in a fraud known as phantom debt, where millions of Americans are hassled to pay back money they don’t owe. The concept is centuries old: Inmates of a New York debtors’ prison joked about it as early as 1800, in a newspaper they published called Forlorn Hope. But systematic schemes to collect on fake debts started only about five years ago. It begins when someone scoops up troves of personal information that are available cheaply online—old loan applications, long-expired obligations, data from hacked accounts—and reformats it to look like a list of debts. Then they make deals with unscrupulous collectors who will demand repayment of the fictitious bills. Their targets are often poor and likely to already be getting confusing calls about other loans. The harassment usually doesn’t work, but some marks are convinced that because the collectors know so much, the debt must be real.
Victims have essentially no recourse to do anything but take the abuse.
Most victims, that is. When the scammers started to hound Therrien, he hounded them right back. Obsessed with payback, he spent hundreds of hours investigating the dirty side of debt. By day he was still promoting ice cream brands and hiring models for liquor store tastings. But in his spare time, he was living out a revenge fantasy. He befriended loan sharks and blackmailed crooked collectors, getting them to divulge their suppliers, and then their suppliers above them. In method, Therrien was like a prosecutor flipping gangster underlings to get to lieutenants and then the boss. In spirit, he was a bit like Liam Neeson’s vigilante character in the movie Taken—using unflagging aggression to obtain scraps of information and reverse-engineer a criminal syndicate. Therrien didn’t punch anyone in the head, of course. He was simply unstoppable over the phone.
The rest of the article describes how Thierren spent his nights seeking out the vast network of operators of these shady scams, using just his phone and the internet as weapons, but along the way enlisting allies at various locations to assist him.
It is a fascinating revenge story without blood and gore that, as Mark Fruenfelder (from whom I got the link) says, would make a good film.
Talking of scammers, I have written before about the Nigerian prince scam and how their absurd pitches were a deliberate part of their strategy. But just yesterday, I got another, quite different version. The brief email had a Lagos, Nigeria address and said in its entirety
Dear Dr. Singham,
I am a senior administrative staff of the (name of corporation redacted) and represent a group that would like to hire your services as manager of a large volume of funds for investment and humanitarian purposes.
If this offer is acceptable to you, please respond to this mail. Feel free also to reach me on my private cell (phone number redacted)
(Name and address redacted)
Unlike the traditional scam that has the generic salutation ‘Dear friend’ or the even more incongruous ‘Dear beloved’, this one used my actual name and even my title, suggesting at least some minimal research into the target. Furthermore, it was brief and to the point unlike the rambling, grammatically challenged, complex scenarios of the old scams. It also did not appeal directly to my greed or need to get easy money but to advance humanitarian causes. So this one is clearly based on a different strategy.