Marcia Zielinski has a credit problem. Bill collectors have been pestering her relentlessly for eight years and there's no end in sight.
"They call you from the time you're sleeping till the time you go back to bed at night and they don't listen," Zielinski said.
The biggest problem, according to Zielinski, is that she's not the person with all the bad debt. Zielinski said she pays cash for most consumer purchases—even cars--and rarely uses a credit card.
"The only way I'd do that is if I had to bury somebody and they didn't have any insurance," Zielinski said.
But that hasn't stopped collection agencies from trying to make her pay overdue charges ranging from a $1,000 furniture purchase to an $11,000 credit card bill. Zielinski said one agency said it would settle for half of the $11,000.
"But they aren't getting a penny from me, Zielinski said. "Because, it's not my credit card."
Zielinski said she once lived in the Orlando area. Some of the bills she's seen for the mystery debtor indicate she lives in nearby Sanford and uses the same name as hers.
Beyond that, Zielinski said she's dumbfounded as to why collection agencies keep confusing her with the other woman because she's financially stable, married for 45 years, fully employed and never leaves creditors guessing.
"I pay my bills," Zielinski said.
Zielinski's lawyer James Thomas said she's part of a growing trend in bill collections —heavy-handed practices that target the wrong debtors or use aggressive tactics that are illegal under Florida law.
"They can still do whatever they need to do to collect the debt legally and lawfully file suit," Thomas said. "But they don't have a right to violate the statute and they don't have a right to violate the consumer protections."
A report released by The Consumers Union earlier this year affirms Thomas contention that abuses are on the rise. "The debt collection system is in dire need of reform," said Gail Hillebrand, director of Consumers Union's Defend Your Dollars campaign in the February news release of that report.
Thomas said collections agencies in Florida are not allowed to hound consumers with repetitive or harassing phone calls, contact them at their jobs without permission or engage in name calling and other insulting behavior to make them cough up overdue payments.
"It's more often than not good hard working people who are unable to meet their obligations for whatever reason," Thomas said. "That doesn't give the collector a right to abuse them in any way trying to get their money."
Thomas said Zielinski is a victim of what's known as bill collector "hopscotching."
That's when a collection company sells the consumer debt to another company for a fraction of what's owed, that company extracts as many payments as possible then sells the debt to a third company for even less money. The process continues as long as an agency believes it can wring out a profit.
Zielinski said she has settled lawsuits with two collection companies already, but the phone calls continue with new companies through the "hopscotch" process because the agencies don't purge her name from their files.
"They sell the whole package to somebody else and it's another company that starts all over again," Zielinski said.
She's not alone. The Consumers Union report concluded the sale of debt portfolios is soaring and estimated the value of purchased debt portfolios at $110 billion in 2005 compared with $6 billion in 1993.
The Consumers Union said in 2009 the Federal Trade Commission received more complaints from consumers about debt collectors than any other industry and called for legal reform at the state and federal levels to reel in the abuses.
Thomas is now working on a third lawsuit on Zielinski's behalf. He said Florida consumers behind on their bills—even the 15 percent or so who rack up debt irresponsibly—can actually profit when collectors cross the line of consumer protection statutes in Florida.
"The aggrieved consumer based on the severity of the violation can collect up to a thousand dollars statutory damages," Thomas said. It also works out pretty well for Thomas.
That's because the law also allows plaintiff lawyers to collect all of their legal fees directly from the collection agencies if they win a lawsuit. That enables Thomas to take on cases without charging his indebted clients a dime for his services.
"That way they can have an attorney come in and champion their rights and not have to pay out of pocket to get help," Thomas said.
Zielinski said win or lose, her personal credit rating is shot and she feels cursed by a mystery woman in Sanford whose abuse of credit cards keep ending up in her lap.
If bad credit isn't bad enough, public records suggest the mystery woman that collection agencies keep connecting with her name may also have a criminal history involving cocaine possession, stolen property and prostitution.
The first time Zielinski discovered the credit problem in 2003, bill collectors weren't the only ones asking questions.
"My husband was very, very upset," Zielinski said. "He wanted to know what I was doing behind his back."