If you get a call from Publishers Clearing House, you might think it’s the Prize Patrol, ready to visit and hand over a big fat check with some festive balloons and flowers like you see on television commercials.
That could happen if the Prize Patrol comes to your door. But if you receive a phone call from the sweepstakes company, chances are you didn’t win a million dollars.
The only thing Glenn Fowler, 55, won was a headache.
The Scotch Plains man contacted us in January after receiving a series of collection calls about a debt owed to Publishers Clearing House.
“Calls to my home number asking for ‘William Fowler’ started sometime last year,” Glenn Fowler said. “I did not keep a record of calls until this year. The calls happen a few times a week.”
Fowler said reps would say they were looking for a William Fowler. He would explain there was no William Fowler at that number, and the reps he talked to largely ended the calls by saying, “Have a nice day.” Some hung up.
Other times a robocaller would call.
“This is an important message for William Fowler,” the electronic voice would say, leaving a phone number and requesting a return call.
Late last year, he said he finally got a rep to talk.
The rep said William Fowler had an outstanding balance of $21.45 with Publishers Clearing House, Glenn Fowler said, but he couldn’t get much more out of her.
“One caller (said) if I had issues with PCH to call them directly, but did not provide a phone number,” Glenn Fowler said. “I called PCH and got a representative that listened to the story, and promised me that she just fixed their database to remove my phone number from the William Fowler account.”
“Recent calls prove that claim bogus,” he said.
Yep, the calls kept coming.
After Fowler talked to Bamboozled, he started keeping a call log. He tried to get the reps to give him more information, but most were silent after he said he wasn’t William Fowler.
There were five calls in the last week of January: four were robocalls and one was a person. Fowler’s log indicated he told “Kneshia” there was no William Fowler at that number. “Kneshia” hung up.
In February, a robocall struck again, then Fowler said he answered a call from “Pat,” who hung up after Fowler said no William lived there.
Then came March, with two more calls. The last was on March 11 from a real person named “James Shawn,” and Fowler answered the call. The rep wouldn’t give any information, but he promised Fowler he’d mark his telephone number as a “wrong number.”
“It amazes me the effort they are putting in for just $21.45. Surely they’ve spent that already,” he said. “My concern is that the calls will eventually elevate and I already deal with enough phone grief.”
Correcting the account
We reached out to ask Publishers Clearing House to call off the dogs with its unnamed collection company.
Spokesman Christopher Irving looked into the records. The company’s third-party collection agent, Sunrise Credit Services of Farmingdale, N.Y., told Irving that on March 11, Glenn Fowler explained the collector was calling the wrong number and there was no William Fowler at that number.
“The number was removed by Sunrise at that time, he was placed on their ‘do not contact’ list,” Irving said. “They have informed us that no such calls have been made since that time.”
Fowler agrees he hasn’t received any calls since that date.
But we had more questions.
Fowler said he had told several company representatives that no William was at that number, yet the calls continued for months. Why did it take months for these calls to cease?
Irving said in an e-mail Sunrise reported a collection call dated Feb. 4 resulted in a “wrong number” status placed on the account, but it’s unclear why it did not take hold until March.
“We have thousands of collection efforts each week and this is the first report I have received of this type of situation over the past several years,” Irving said. “No matter, one is more than enough and we are following up to ensure it does not happen again.”
We also wanted to make sure no negative information was reported on Glenn Fowler’s credit reports — even with the name difference — and Irving said he confirmed no credit reporting companies were notified.
Fowler says he hopes his number is off-limits for good, but he said he’ll believe it when he hears it.
“I was concerned about the lack of information most reps gave on the phone, and I didn’t want to provide them with more info about me to add to their account,” he said. “Most hung up when I started asking questions. Clearly their investigative powers and/or motivations are not very good.”
If you get debt calls
If you receive collection calls for a debt that isn’t yours, how should you handle it?
Start by knowing your rights.
In general, debt collectors may not contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. unless you agree to it. They must send you a written “validation notice” telling you how much money you owe within five days of their first contact with you. The notice must include the creditor’s name and how to proceed if you don’t think you owe the money.
In a case like Fowler’s — where the collection company has the wrong guy — you may have to step up to get the calls to stop.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says you must tell the collector — in writing — to stop calling. Send a letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document your case. Keep a copy for your files.
“Once the collector receives your letter, they may not contact you again, with two exceptions: a collector can contact you to tell you there will be no further contact or to let you know that they or the creditor intend to take a specific action, like filing a lawsuit,” said FTC spokesman Frank Dorman.
A verbal request isn’t enough. Had Fowler sent a letter, the collector would have had to back off. We recommend Fowler send a letter to the collection agency just to be sure.
Learn more about your rights at the FTC website (ftc.gov).