HARRISBURG – Attorney General Tom Corbett announced that a consumer protection lawsuit has been filed against an Erie debt collection company accused of using deceptive tactics to mislead, confuse or coerce consumers – including the use of bogus “hearings” allegedly held in a company office that was decorated to look like a courtroom.
Corbett said the civil lawsuit was filed by the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection against Unicredit America Inc., with corporate and business offices located at 1537 West 39th St., Erie, also identified as the “Unicredit Debt Resolution Center.”
“This is an unconscionable attempt to use fake court proceedings to deceive, mislead or frighten consumers into making payments or surrendering valuables to Unicredit without following lawful procedures for debt collection,” Corbett said. “Consumers also allegedly received dubious ‘hearing notices’ and letters – often hand-delivered by individuals who appear to be Sheriff Deputies – which implied they would be taken into custody by the Sheriff if they failed to appear at the phony court for ‘hearings’ or ‘depositions’.”
Corbett said that in conjunction with the lawsuit, the Attorney General’s Office has also filed a petition for special and preliminary injunction, asking the court to freeze all Unicredit assets; prohibit the company from engaging in any debt collection; immediately cease all bogus hearings or depositions; and to provide detailed information about company bank accounts, assets and business records.
According to the lawsuit, fictitious court proceedings were used to intimidate consumers into providing access to bank accounts, making immediate payments or surrendering vehicle titles and other assets – sometimes dispatching Unicredit employees to consumers’ homes in order to retrieve documents or have consumers sign payment agreements.
Corbett said Unicredit allegedly used civil subpoenas to summon consumers to an office in Erie, which included an area referred to by Unicredit employees as “the courtroom.”
The fake courtroom allegedly contained furniture and decorations similar to those used in actual court offices, including a raised “bench” area where a judge would be seated; two tables and chairs in front of the “bench” for attorneys and defendants; a simulated witness stand; seating for spectators; and legal books on bookshelves. During some proceedings, an individual dressed in black was seated where observers would expect to see a judge.
Corbett said Unicredit is accused of violating Pennsylvania’s Consumer Protection Law and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and also failed to comply with state and Erie County court rules in order to extract payments from consumers.
Corbett urged consumers with complaints or questions related to Unicredit debt collection practices to call the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-441-2555 or file an online consumer complaint.
The lawsuit seeks restitution for all consumers who have been harmed by Unicredit’s unfair trade practices, along with civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation (up to $3,000 for each violation involving a victim age 60 or older). Additionally, Corbett said the lawsuit asks the court to prohibit Unicredit from conducting any debt collection or asset recovery in Pennsylvania until all consumer restitution and penalties have been paid.
The lawsuit was filed in Erie County Court of Common Pleas by Deputy Attorney General Leslie M. Grey and Senior Deputy Attorney General Jesse F. Harvey of the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
A hearing on the petition for special and preliminary injunction is scheduled for 11 am on December 13, 2010, before Erie County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael E. Dunlavey.