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Millions Are Hounded for Debt They Don’t Owe. One Victim Fought Back, With a Vengeance

Andrew Therrien wanted payback. He got it—and uncovered a conspiracy.

On the morning a debt collector threatened to rape his wife, Andrew Therrien was working from home, in a house with green shutters on a cul-de-sac in a small Rhode Island town. Tall and stocky, with a buzz cut and a square, friendly face, Therrien was a salesman for a promotions company. He’d always had an easy rapport with people over the phone, and on that day, in February 2015, he was calling food vendors to talk about grocery store giveaways.

Therrien was interrupted midpitch by a call from his wife. She’d gotten a voicemail from an authoritative-sounding man saying Therrien was in some kind of trouble. “I need to verify an address to present you with your formal claim,” the man had said. “Andrew Therrien, you are officially notified.”

A few minutes later, Therrien’s phone buzzed. It was the same guy. He gave his name as Charles Cartwright and said Therrien owed $700 on a payday loan. But Therrien knew he didn’t owe anyone anything. Suspecting a scam, he told Cartwright just what he thought of his scare tactics.

Cartwright hung up, then called back, mad. He said he wanted to meet face-to-face to teach Therrien a lesson.

“Come on by, asshole,” Therrien says he replied.

“I will,” Cartwright said, “and I hope your wife is at home.”

That’s when he made the rape threat.

Therrien got so angry he couldn’t think clearly. He wasn’t going to just let someone menace and disrespect his wife like that. He had to know who this Cartwright guy was, and his employer, too. Therrien wanted to make them pay.

At the same time, he worried that the call might not be a swindle. What if some misinformed loan shark really was coming for them? But Therrien didn’t have any real information he could take to the police.

Then he remembered Cartwright had left a number with his wife.

He dialed.

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.

Earlier this year, I met Therrien, 33, at a Panera Bread restaurant in central Providence. He had reluctantly agreed to be interviewed, on the condition that I not reveal his hometown or his wife’s name.

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.

The problem is as simple as it is intractable. In 2012 a call center in India was busted for making 8 million calls in eight months to collect made-up bills. The Federal Trade Commission has since broken up at least 13 similar scams. In most cases, regulators weren’t able to identify the original perpetrators because the data files had been sold and repackaged so many times. 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.

When Therrien dialed the number Cartwright had left, a woman answered and said she worked for Lakefront Processing Solutions in Buffalo. She’d never heard of Charles Cartwright, though, and implied he must be some kind of freelancer or bounty hunter. Regardless, she said, Therrien could clear everything up by making a payment. Her records indicated that he owed a payday lender called Vista.

Therrien had indeed once taken out a loan, but he didn’t think it was from Vista. He’d been selling copiers at the time, and when his boss stiffed him on a $20,000 commission, he turned to an online lender to make a car payment. Therrien says he paid back the debt promptly. He was offended by the Lakefront woman’s suggestion that he was a deadbeat. “I’m a person who believes in personal friggin’ responsibility,” Therrien tells me. “I signed an agreement. And I fulfilled my obligation.”

On his laptop, Therrien started digging. He found a securities filing saying Vista had merged with a company called That Marketing Solution Inc. After paying a few dollars to an online people-search service, he got its president on the line. “You sold my personal information to a bunch of thugs,” Therrien recalls telling the man. “I want to know why, and I want to know what you’re going to do about it.” Within hours, the company provided a letter saying that Therrien had never borrowed from Vista.

Armed with proof the debt was invalid, Therrien turned back to Lakefront. More searches yielded a corporate parent, owned by two Buffalo men. Therrien called them, then their lawyer. When the lawyer stalled, Therrien bombarded him with more calls, at home and on his cell—enough to put Lakefront off him for good. (The parties eventually reached a confidential settlement, and Lakefront—whose name I found in a public record—declined to comment.)

By the morning after Cartwright’s call, Therrien’s fears of a psycho collector had been assuaged—no one had showed up at his house. But swatting down Lakefront turned out to be just the first round in a game of whack-a-mole. More collection agencies contacted him, his wife, his brother, even his grandparents. The calls made it clear to Therrien that an overarching force was at play. His name had to be getting on these lists somehow.

Each night, after his wife went to sleep, he cracked open his laptop to comb lawsuits, unearth filings, and uproot the owners of the agencies calling him. When he got names, he’d phone them, often surprising them at home, and make clear that he wouldn’t go away until they’d revealed who supplied their debt portfolios. “Here’s the deal,” he’d say. “I don’t really care about you. There’s a million guys like you out there. You’ll never get your money back. You might as well get blood out of it. Tell me what I need to know to put these guys in jail.”

Sometimes, Therrien would make a small payment on the fake debt, then check bank records to see where it went. He found people with convictions for counterfeiting, stock fraud, drug dealing, and child molestation. He started a spreadsheet, Scums.xlsx, to keep track. On weekends he’d harangue them from his couch while watching New England Patriots games. He used persuasion techniques he’d learned selling copiers, some drawn from a book called Getting Into Your Customer’s Head. On the phone, Therrien is a savant. He has an instinct for when to be a friend—one gruff payday lender tells me, sheepishly, that he simply doesn’t know why he speaks with Therrien so frequently—and when to be a bully.

Therrien would threaten to report the collectors to regulators unless they helped him figure out what was going on. “You are either with me in this, or you are against me,” he wrote to one man. Others he tried to shame. “If my intentions are right, I’ll have God on my side,” Therrien emailed one source. “You may not love poor people, but He does.”

The targets were shocked by Therrien’s doggedness. In their world, complaints are common, but most victims give up after being promised they won’t be called again. One shady-debt player tells me he suspected Therrien was an undercover federal investigator because he’d gathered so much information on his business. “It’s an obsession, it’s unbelievable, an outright vigilante crusade,” another says. “It doesn’t seem to equal the harm that was done to him.”

Therrien knew his fixation seemed odd. He didn’t tell his friends and family much about his nighttime activity. But the collectors’ threats brought back feelings of rage and fear that he’d struggled to suppress since childhood. He grew up in working-class Connecticut, where his father was a factory man and his mother had a series of part-time jobs. Therrien says they mistreated him and his brother, and he moved out at 16 after an incident he won’t discuss. He told me he regrets not doing more to protect his brother. (Therrien’s father is dead, and his mother denies she did anything wrong.)

In college, Therrien worked at a J.Crew store, where a customer spotted his talent for sales and offered him a job. Therrien makes a good living now, and he takes pride in being a more responsible person than his parents—paying his bills on time, going to church on Sunday, and taking care of those close to him. “If it’s just about me, I don’t particularly give a f---,” he tells me, with an incongruous laugh. “You call my wife, and you call my grandparents? You just opened up a door that got really f---ing ugly, and now I’m going to make sure that I just ruin your life.”

As more collectors yielded to Therrien’s persistence and talked, he dropped his pursuit of Charles Cartwright, concluding that it was an untraceable alias, and focused on understanding their business. Phantom debt, he learned, is blended with real debt in ways that are almost impossible to untangle.

Americans are currently late on more than $600 billion in bills, according to Federal Reserve research, and almost one person in 10 has a debt in collectors’ hands. The agencies recoup what they can and sell the rest down-market, so that iffier and iffier debt is bought by shadier and shadier individuals. Deception is common. Scammers often sell the same portfolios of debt, called “paper,” to several collection agencies at once, so a legitimate IOU gains illegitimate clones. Some inflate balances, a practice known as “overbiffing.” Others create “redo” lists—people who’ve settled their debt, but will be harassed again anyway. These rosters are actually more valuable, because the targets have proved willing to part with money over the phone. And then there are those who invent debts out of whole cloth.

Portfolios are combined and doctored until they contain thousands of entries. One collector told Therrien that he’d paid cash at a diner for a thumb drive with a database containing Therrien’s name. Some collectors told him they thought the files were partially legitimate; others knew their paper was completely falsified. Yet they continued to trade it, referring to the people they pursued as deadbeats and losers. The more Therrien learned, the more disgusted he grew with everyone involved.

His search for the ur-source rarely traveled in a straight line. For a time, Therrien focused on Buffalo,one of the poorest cities in the U.S. and a hub for the collections industry—home to agencies that work the oldest, cheapest paper. Debt collector is a more common job there than bartender or construction worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As Therrien wore down as many Buffalo collectors as he could, one name kept surfacing: Joel Tucker, a former payday-loan mogul from Kansas City, Mo. By the summer of 2015, Therrien was convinced he’d found his guy.

Therrien needed an ally inside the Kansas City racket. He found one in Frampton “Ted” Rowland III, a middle-aged insurance-broker-turned-predatory-lender whose company was listed as the original creditor for one of Therrien’s supposed loans. When Therrien called, Rowland said he was sorry—and kept talking. His life was falling apart. He’d been sued by the FTC over his lending practices, he’d lost all his money, and his wife was leaving him. Therrien sympathized. He sensed Rowland was a good man who’d made a bad choice out of a desire to provide for his family. They started to speak regularly, and Rowland told Therrien he blamed Tucker for everything.

Tucker had created the local industry with his two brothers. Scott, the oldest, was the brains. He’d served time in prison for a scam in which he’d pretended to work for JPMorgan Chase & Co. The middle son, Blaine, was popular and a talented musician. Joel, tall and handsome, was a natural salesman. But when he was 21, he was selling furniture and working at a mini-mart, so hard up that he got arrested for bouncing a $12 check. (The case was dismissed.)

In the mid-1990s, Scott opened a payday-loan store and gave his brothers jobs. Lending money to people who don’t have any is surprisingly profitable. In states where such stores are legal, such as Missouri, they’re more common than McDonald’s franchises. But in the 15 states where such stores are against the law, there are millions of desperate people willing to pay for fast cash and no one to give it to them. Scott pioneered what he thought was a clever legal loophole that would give him access to that market: He created websites that were owned on paper by an American Indian tribe, which could claim sovereign immunity from regulators. Those sites charged as much as $150 interest on a two-week, $500 loan—an annualized interest rate of about 700 percent.

The loophole was ridiculously lucrative. Scott’s operation generated $2 billion in revenue from 2003 to 2012. He bought a private jet and spent more than $60 million to start his own professional Ferrari racing team. Around 2005, Joel split to start a company that would allow anyone to get into online payday lending—supplying software to process applications and loans and offering access to a steady stream of customers. All the clients had to bring was money and a willingness to bypass state law. Word spread around Kansas City’s country clubs and private schools that if you wanted to get rich, Joel Tucker was your man.

With Tucker’s help, one property management executive and his son, a general contractor, started a lender that saw $161 million in revenue over eight years. An investor presentation from that period shows that Tucker was personally clearing tens of millions of dollars in profit per year.

One of his clients was Rowland, until the gravy train crashed in 2013. Under pressure from regulators, banks stopped doing business with the sketchiest payday lenders, making it hard for them to issue loans and collect payments. In 2014 federal authorities raided Rowland’s office, and the FBI began investigating the Tucker brothers. Blaine committed suicide by jumping off a parking garage in 2014; Scott was charged two years later with racketeering, and prosecutors called his tribal arrangement a sham. (He declined to comment.)

By the time Therrien came looking for Joel Tucker in the fall of 2015, he’d become a hard man to find. Twice divorced, he was moving from place to place, ducking his creditors. A booking photo from the time when he was briefly imprisoned for failing to show up for court in an unrelated lawsuit shows him with bristly gray hair and dark circles under deep-set blue eyes. Therrien couldn’t find a working phone number for him—not even when he reached his 81-year-old mother, Norma. She claimed not to know where he was.

Therrien’s tactics grew more intense, mirroring those of the debt collectors he loathed. As he had in Buffalo, he developed a network of sources in Kansas City, figuring out who hated whom and playing them off each other. He got a burner app that provided disposable numbers for his smartphone, with any area code he wanted. He called wives, widows, business partners, even a waitress who’d once worked at a restaurant the Tuckers owned. He’d have his sources drive by places where he thought Tucker might be living, to look for his car. He told one broker’s mother-in-law that she should investigate who her daughter was married to. Therrien acknowledges that sometimes he went too far.

By November 2015 he developed a simple theory. Tucker’s business had given him access to a huge database of people who’d applied for loans—including, just maybe, the one Therrien had taken out in his copier-selling days. What if, when Tucker was broke and needed money, he’d taken applicants’ personal information, invented loan balances, and sold the list as a portfolio of delinquent debt?

Therrien took his hypothesis to the FBI and FTC. His emails were breathless and confusing, but the authorities were patient, taking his calls and talking to him at length. It was clear they knew about Tucker, but Therrien got frustrated by what he saw as inaction. “There are millions of people out there being threatened daily by these actions and I’m doing my part to try and stop it,” he wrote to an FTC investigator in early 2016, begging him to hold Tucker accountable.

January 2016 saw a breakthrough: A former employee of Tucker’s agreed to arrange a call between him and Therrien to clear the air. Therrien couldn’t believe his unseen antagonist was willing to talk. So anxious he couldn’t sit down, he set up a recording device in his home office, put his phone on speaker, and called.

Tucker seemed hyper and defensive, telling Therrien that if any of the portfolios he’d sold now contained phantom debt, they must have been doctored after leaving his hands. “F---ing shame on them,” he said. “Wasn’t me. It had to have been them.”

Therrien was trying to hold back his anger, but his voice wavered. He wanted to impress Tucker, mentioning tidbits he knew about his business. Tucker didn’t understand why Therrien, this guy he’d never met, was so extravagantly invested.

“I’ll tell you why I care,” Therrien said calmly. “I’ll tell you why I care. I believe, and I’m just telling you what I believe, you sold my personal information 21 separate times. I’ve gotten close to 100 f---ing calls, and because I’ve gotten those 100 calls from scumbag collectors that you facilitated, I’m going to make sure that that kind of shit ends now.”

Tucker was incredulous: “You think this is my fault?”

“You got desperate because you spent two dollars for every dollar you had,” Therrien said.

“What are you talking about? Are you trying to micromanage my life? You don’t know jack shit about me.”

“I know what happened. You f---ing stole money from people,” Therrien said. “I’m giving you the opportunity to come clean.”

“I don’t know who you are, Andrew,” Tucker said. “Who are you?”

“A person that you f---ed with too many times.”

When Therrien played the tape for me, I was amazed at how fluently he channeled emotion—his own and Tucker’s—to get what he wanted. Incredibly, by the end of the half-hour call, Tucker was offering to help Therrien collect evidence about crimes committed by other people in the payday-loan business. “We need to get this stuff resolved,” Tucker said on the tape, with a sigh. “’Cause this—it’s not healthy for anybody.”

The two men started talking and texting a few times a week. “I think he has a mental illness that allows him to think he did nothing wrong,” Therrien told me. (Tucker didn’t respond to most of my emailed questions and kept putting off interview requests. “Lies are not stories,” he wrote in one email. He said that any debt he’d sold was legitimate.)

Tucker’s denials made Therrien hate him more, but Therrien masked his feelings to keep the conversation going. The one-year anniversary of his quest was approaching, and he wanted real evidence of wrongdoing—something Tucker couldn’t deny and officials couldn’t ignore.

Therrien soon obtained two crucial sets of documents to that end. In March 2016 he flew to California to meet a debt broker, who handed over some contracts Tucker had signed. Separately, Therrien received an email from the manager of a collection agency, to whose conscience he’d spent weeks appealing. The email, whose subject line read “Have faith in the good in heart,” included actual phantom-debt files, with names and Social Security numbers. The metadata yielded a new name: Rob Harsh, Tucker’s IT guy. (The author of the email died of a drug overdose a few months later.)

In May 2016, Therrien emailed his discoveries to the FTC. A lawyer replied right away: “Andrew, we need to talk about this.” Therrien also gave his intel to some private lawyers who were going after Tucker in Texas. They contacted Harsh, and in August 2016 he submitted an affidavit to the court. Harsh, who declined to comment for this story, testified that Tucker had asked him to manipulate a database of almost 8 million payday-loan applications, writing in a made-up lender and adding an amount owed of $300 for each person.

Therrien had been right all along.

Vindication didn’t make Therrien happy, not even when the FTC suit against Rowland’s company took a karmic swerve that drew in Tucker, directing him to return $30 million he’d received in ill-gotten profits from the business. Tucker told the court he was broke.

Meanwhile, Rowland was spiraling. He confided in Therrien that he was considering suicide, and one day that summer he called Therrien to say goodbye. “Don’t do anything stupid,” Therrien texted him afterward. “I may be callous with you lately but I still care and don’t want anything bad to happen.” Therrien told me he’d informed the police of Rowland’s plan and that they had intervened. But that October, Rowland shot himself. His death added to Therrien’s outrage at Tucker and other predatory lenders like him who hadn’t faced any real legal consequences.

Finally, in December 2016, the FTC sued Tucker for selling phantom debt. According to the regulator, everything had happened pretty much as Therrien imagined: Tucker had invented more than 7.7 million fake debts and sold them to a series of middlemen for $4.2 million. This September, a judge ruled for the agency, ordering Tucker to pay back that money on top of the $30 million he already owed.

The FTC has never credited Therrien, and Michael Tankersley, an agency lawyer, declined to discuss their interactions. But Tankersley told me that Harsh and the California broker were two key sources of information establishing Tucker’s wrongdoing.

Therrien, as usual, was unsatisfied. He was still getting calls from collectors, for one thing. And he felt that if he’d done a better job investigating, Tucker would be facing criminal charges—not a civil fine he’d never end up paying. Therrien has stayed in touch with the FBI’s Kansas City office. An FBI spokeswoman declines to say whether Tucker is being investigated, but three of his associates told me that agents had contacted them about his debt sales.

After the ruling against Tucker, Therrien heard from him for the first time in months, and they started talking again. Amid their conversations, which were recorded, Tucker’s brother, Scott, was convicted on all 14 charges he faced. Without directly asking Therrien to drop his vendetta, Tucker seemed to be pleading for mercy. “I’ve f---ing had enough harm done,” he said. “I’ve lost a brother. Got a brother going to prison. Put it this way, Andrew. I’m tired, buddy. I’m f---ing tired.”

“I’m tired too,” Therrien replied, “because I’m still getting harassed by these motherf---ers.”