Admiral Merchants Motor Freight of Minneapolis, a trucking company with a 60-year footprint in the industry, hired a guy last summer to ensure their semis sailed through low-clearance bridges. The risk assessor screwed up the measurements and cargo smashed into an overpass. There were huge losses. Admiral Merchants refused to pay their contractor for his "gross negligence."
Shortly after, a Texas debt collection agency started hounding claims manager Mark Dooley to pay up anyway. Tucker, Albin and Associates sent him a letter dressed to look like it had come from a law firm, demanding cash within 24 hours. When Dooley replied to explain why he was disputing the debt, a rep threatened to send a private investigator to crunch the company’s assets.
That private investigator will also take down the license plate number of every car in Admiral Merchants’ parking lot and contact all its business partners, the debt collector warned.
“Every time I asked for more information, simple things like proof they are actually representing the creditor, details of how they came out to the amount they were demanding, they would not give out any of that information,” Dooley says. “Most collection agencies I think would just file a lawsuit.”
After two weeks of Wild West badgering, Dooley suggested that Tucker Albin do just that. The company declined, instead choosing to send notices to Admiral Merchants’ suppliers asking if the trucking company was a credible business that paid its bills on time. Some of that got back to Dooley, so he forwarded all his emails from Tucker Albin to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
The Commerce Department’s investigation over the past year found that the debt collection agency had bullied more than 100 small businesses across Greater Minnesota, breaking state and federal laws along the way.
“As a matter of company policy, its debt collectors were trained and directed to deceive, harass and threaten small business owners to coerce payments from them,” says Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. “They used caller ID to pretend to be family members or neighbors when calling, they claimed to be private investigators when they were not, and they threatened to hire people to stand in front of businesses with signs saying they didn’t pay their debts.”
Tucker Albin’s employee training manual listed instructions for collectors to spoof fake numbers to use with fake names, the Commerce Department found. If the debtor was a farmer, Tucker Albin would use the number of a local farmer's market. If the debtor was a volunteer fire firefighter, it would mimic the number of the local city hall. Then the company would make outrageous threats to freeze the target business’ assets, revoke its license or report its owners to the IRS.
As of Wednesday, Tucker Albin has agreed to settle with the Commerce Department out of court. It's a surrender that comes with a $500,000 fine, the largest penalty the department has ever imposed. Tucker Albin did not return requests for comment.
"The harassment itself was more baffling than anything," Dooley says, looking back. "It was unprofessional and didn't seem to have any direction whatsoever. Luckily, we'd been in business so long with the partners who were contacted, they didn't give the letters much heat. It could have gone very differently."
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