Hounded: Minnesotans in Debt

Would you give them your credit card number?

  • Updated: March 17, 2011 - 4:37 PM

Minnesota law says people convicted of fraud or any felony are barred for five years from working as debt collectors. The job gives them access to private financial data, including credit card numbers. Offenders routinely lie to get around the law.

LEE SONG, 32

After a judge gave her a break and dropped her first forgery charge in 2002, Song forged more checks and was convicted the following year. Her next conviction, in 2005, was for swindling a former employer, a medical device company, out of $127,122 by submitting phony payment requests. While on felony probation for that crime, she lied about her criminal past to get work as a state-approved debt collector for Receivables Management Solutions of West St. Paul. In that job, she stole credit card data and used it to charge $1,561 in jewelry, food and car repairs. She was fired earlier this year, convicted of the new thefts and sent to jail.

JOSEPH J. BENITZ, 31

A former debt collector who now works as a repossession agent, Benitz was convicted of misdemeanor criminal property damage in 1998. In a personal feud, he bashed a car with a crowbar while two terrified people were inside. A year later, he added disorderly conduct to his record after confronting a woman at her apartment with a baseball bat. In 2001, he was convicted of fleeing a police officer in a car and on foot. He checked "no" to having any criminal convictions when he registered with the state in 2008 to work briefly as a debt collector for AllianceOne Receivables Management in Eagan. He needs no license to repossess vehicles.

KEISHA R. BURRUS, 33

She got her first job in debt collection after being convicted of misdemeanor theft in 2001 for stealing someone's identity and using it to obtain credit and buy expensive jewelry. Burrus remained a debt collector, most recently at AllianceOne, even after her felony theft conviction for carting $1,634 in stolen goods out of a Target store. She claimed to have no criminal record on her 2006 application for a state debt collector registration. She has left AllianceOne and is no longer registered as a collector. She remains on probation for theft.

SHERRIA E. MUSTIN, 26

In 2005, she stole a former friend's identity and used it to charge a $1,460 computer online. While the swindling charges were pending in court, she went to work for a new collections company. That required her to fill out a new state debt collector registration form. She checked "no" where it asked if she had ever been charged with a crime. In 2007, she was convicted of felony check forgery for persuading a co-worker at a collections firm to cash counterfeit traveler's checks at banks, pocketing $1,029. She remains registered as a collector with NCO Financial Systems Inc., and recently completed three years of probation for check forgery.

ZACHARIAH D. HANKEL, 28

Hankel has applied for or renewed his state debt collector registration three times since 2003, and currently works for Frontline Asset Strategies LLC in Roseville. Three times he filled out the state form and checked "no" about having a criminal past. State records show a 2003 conviction for felony receiving stolen goods. The records also show he was convicted of felony domestic assault in 2005 and spent a year in prison for repeatedly hitting a former girlfriend, whom police found bleeding in a hotel lobby.

JOSEPH L. BERNTSEN, 28

Berntsen's career as a debt collector could be over. He's back in jail after violating probation on a 2006 felony conviction for sexually assaulting a woman in Braham, Minn. He says he was recently dismissed by Financial Recovery Services Inc. of Edina for not collecting enough money. When he registered with the state to be a collector, he denied having a criminal record. The Commerce Department last week still had him registered as a collector. He is set to be released from the Isanti County jail in February.

SARA A. LEGROS, 24

In 2009, she stole someone's PIN number and gave it to an acquaintance to get cash from an ATM for drugs, court papers say. She pleaded guilty to financial transaction card fraud, and the felony was reduced to a misdemeanor in court. Around the same time, Legros acted as a "lookout" during a home burglary, and drove away in a stolen car, resulting in another misdemeanor conviction, court papers say. When Legros applied to the state for a debt collector registration, she checked "no" about having a criminal past. State records list Legros as registered to work for Allied Interstate Inc., a collections firm in Plymouth. When contacted, she deferred questions to the company, which declined to comment.

Source: Minnesota Commerce Department, court records.
  • about this series

  • This series examines the aftermath of a credit boom that left many people in financial trouble, facing a collections industry that uses aggressive methods to obtain payments.

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