Three years ago, Troy Scheffler decided to shell out $60 for a digital voice recorder.

That investment has won him about $20,000.

Scheffler, a 34-year-old from Coon Rapids, used the device to record the bill collectors who were calling him 30 to 40 times a day. Those who said something abusive, he slapped with lawsuits and used the recordings as evidence.

In nine cases, collection firms paid Scheffler settlements to avoid trials -- money that he used to buy food and pay his mortgage.

"It was probably the least-strenuous money I ever made," he said.

A former collector, Scheffler knew the law, and says he used to work with people who routinely ignored it to intimidate debtors. "With some collectors, it's just part of their DNA," he said.

Even so, Scheffler said he was surprised when collectors used illegal tactics on him. One left a voice message claiming to be an FBI agent. "I've had collectors call me a loser, a deadbeat, a liar," he said. "One guy even told me, 'Don't drop the soap when you go to jail.'"

In just two years, he became the most litigious debtor in the state. He is one of 1,439 people who have sued collection agencies in Minnesota federal courts over the past decade under a 1977 federal law that outlaws abusive conduct, according to WebRecon, a Michigan firm that tracks the litigation.

The lawsuits haven't cured his debt problem. Scheffler now owes more in credit card debt -- about $80,000 -- than he did when he began his lawsuit spree.

Collection firms often gave him a choice: Settle for a few thousand dollars in cash, or a reduction in the debt. Scheffler always took the cash, even when the payout was less than the debt reduction.

"It was more important to put food on the table," he said. "Besides, if I can walk away with $2,000 in my pocket for an hour's work, then why not?"

Along the way, most of the phone calls stopped.

Scheffler filed so many lawsuits that collectors now scrub his name from their call lists to avoid tangling with him. He confirmed this by contacting one of his old friends at a collections firm, who found his name on a "do-not-call" list of repeat litigants.

He still gets the occasional collector phone call, but it's not like it was two years ago.

"Finally, I can live in peace," he said.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308