Maryland regulators, after receiving a slew of consumer questions in the wake of a major debt collector's collapse, have sent letters to every collection agency operating in the state to try to connect anxious debtors with the companies they owe.
Rockville-based Mann Bracken, which abruptly shut its doors after the recent bankruptcy of a spinoff company that handled its nonlegal work, used to collect payments from consumers on behalf of firms that owned the debt, passing that money on to the creditors. Now that the firm has all but disappeared, consumers calling the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation say they don't know where to send their money and can't reach anyone at Mann Bracken for information.
"When payments start to back up, it's bad for everybody," said Mark Kaufman, the state's deputy commissioner of financial regulation, noting that consumers rightly fear being hit with interest charges and penalties.
His office asked Mann Bracken for a list of its clients in order to contact them, but the state hasn't received it yet. So regulators sent letters this week to about 1,400 licensed collections agencies in the state, telling them to get in touch with any consumers who owe them money "and inform them of what to do" if the accounts were handled by Mann Bracken or its offshoot, Axiant.
"Simply responding to inbound inquiries is not sufficient, particularly given the scope of Mann Bracken's activities," the letter states.
Because debt is sold like any other commodity, figuring out whom you owe can be difficult. Consumers might have racked up unpaid bills on a department store credit card a year or two ago, but a company they haven't heard of probably owns the right to collect on it. Kaufman said he and others in the office are getting "numerous" calls from confused and worried residents.
He said consumers in limbo should look at paperwork sent to them about their debt to see if the debt owner is named. People with court-ordered settlements, meanwhile, might want to file a notice with the court to state for the record that they can't pay because the company has shut down, some legal experts have suggested.
The state's district courts are in the process of dismissing what are thought to be tens of thousands of open Mann Bracken cases. Anyone whose case is dismissed will get a "notice of dismissal" letter in the mail, said Darrell S. Pressley, a spokesman for the Maryland judiciary. He said he didn't know if people had started to receive those letters.
The courts are still trying to determine exactly how many cases were handled by Mann Bracken.
Mann Bracken is a law firm, and the state has said in documents that it will refer the principals to the Attorney Grievance Commission for an investigation of any ethical violations. Two principals, Scott Kramer and Connell Loftus, have not returned phone calls seeking comment.
Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel for the grievance commission, said he was not allowed to discuss whether an investigation had been launched. The information becomes public if there is enough evidence to bring the matter to court, he said.