Suit: Erie debt collectors held fake court hearings

| Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010

State prosecutors accused debt collectors in Erie of posing as sheriff's deputies and conducting bogus court hearings to shake down debtors.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in Erie, the Attorney General's Office accused Unicredit America Inc. of Erie of using "deceptive tactics to mislead, confuse or coerce consumers," including holding hearings in a mock courtroom.

Michael Covatto, president of Unicredit, did not return a phone call.

"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," said Attorney General Tom Corbett in a statement.

The lawsuit seeks civil damages of $3,000 for each time the company deceived debtors age 60 or older, and $1,000 for all other victims, for violations of consumer protection and unfair trade practice laws. It asks that Unicredit make restitution to the debtors.

It was not clear how many debtors were deceived. The state is "still working to determine the full size and scope of this scheme," including possible criminal charges, said spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen. Unicredit has acted as a debt collector since June 2009.

Unicredit allegedly sometimes used people disguised as sheriff's deputies to hand-deliver "hearing notices" to debtors, said the lawsuit. That gave the impression that recipients could be taken into custody if they didn't appear in the phony court for the fake hearings and depositions.

The fictitious courtroom proceedings often intimidated debtors into signing payment agreements or making immediate payments and also providing access to bank accounts or surrendering vehicles and other assets, the lawsuit claims.

Unicredit engaged a lawyer near its office to help in the bogus collection process, according to the lawsuit. Attorney Lawrence D'Ambrosio allegedly prepared legal letters and "subpoenas" for Unicredit to use in the scheme.

D'Ambrosio, who was not sued in this case, could not be reached.

"The exact role and potential liability for any individuals is something that will be determined as the case moves forward," said Hagen-Frederiksen.

The attorney general has petitioned the Erie County court for a preliminary injunction to freeze all of Unicredit's assets, and prohibit the firm from collecting debts and holding bogus hearings and depositions. The court is expected to hold a hearing Tuesday, Hagen-Frederiksen said.

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