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When the phone rang, the message on the caller ID display was a surprise. Sometimes it said, “Flower Shop.” Or “Pizza Delivery.” Or the name or number of a family member. Or “Repossession Services.”

When consumers answered the phone, the ruse continued. An operator gave the impression that flowers or pizza were on the way, but more information was needed — such as the consumer’s location or the location of their car.

In reality, the operators were debt collectors working for auto lenders Westlake Financial Services or Wilshire Consumer Credit, alleges the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The tactic was among the revelations made public last week in a consent order signed by the bureau and the collection agencies. Westlake, based in Los Angeles, services auto loans — often for borrowers with poor credit. Wilshire, a wholly owned subsidiary of Westlake, both offers and services auto title loans.

The firms used a tool called “Skip Tracy” (“skip tracing” is a term used by collectors to mean searching for updated information on consumers) to falsify Caller ID data and trick borrowers into answering the phone or returning calls. The system was efficient, and went beyond the telephonic hacking. It helped employees keep the story straight, the CFPB said.

“When call recipients returned a call to one of the phone numbers associated with Caller ID information that had been changed using Skip Tracy, that system showed … employees the Caller ID text associated with the original outgoing call,” the consent order says. “When (employees) put these phrases into the Caller ID information … collectors usually pretended during the call that they worked for businesses or departments matching those descriptions.”

The CFPB alleges that Westlake/Wilshire used Skip Tracy to contact consumers with over 137,000 accounts from 2010 to 2014.

In a statement emailed to Credit.com by Chief Compliance Officer Robert Engilman, Westlake said it consented to the issuance of a consent order “without admitting or denying any of the findings…and did so in order to avoid lengthy and costly litigation.” The statement also said the allegations relate to practices “that were ceased long ago,” and that the firm is committed to meeting all regulatory and legal requirements.

Fear & Money

The alleged practices include convincing borrowers that their cars were on the verge of being repossessed when that wasn’t true, the CFPB says.

“When (Westlake/Wiltshire) made debt collection calls and changed the Caller ID text to display ‘Repo,’ ‘Repossession Services,’ ‘Asset Recovery,’ or other names suggesting repossession, or when (they) told borrowers they were calling from repossession companies or similar third-party businesses, they gave borrowers the false impression that they were in the process of repossessing the borrowers’ vehicles,” the consent order says.

Such misrepresentations violate the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, the CFPB said.

The CFPB also claims that employees pretended to be family members.

“(The firms) also used Skip Tracy to manipulate the information on Caller ID and make it look like the call originated from a family member or friend of the borrower … In fact, the Borrowers’ family members or friends played no role in originating these calls,” the order says.

Even after borrowers’ cars were repossessed, the firm continued to use Skip Tracy illegally, the CFPB said.

“Westlake and Wilshire called consumers whose vehicles had already been repossessed and used Skip Tracy to make it appear the calls were coming from a party associated with the word ‘Storage.’ During some of these calls, the companies’ debt collectors implied that the vehicles would be released if the borrowers made a partial payment on the account,” the CFPB claims. “However, the companies would actually only release a repossessed vehicle after a borrower paid the full amount due. As a consequence, some borrowers paid the amount agreed upon during the phone call, but their vehicles were not released.”

The CFPB also alleges that Westlake unfairly altered the terms of borrowers’ loans.

“In some cases, the companies changed the due dates or extended the terms of loans without borrowers’ permission, causing more interest to accrue, while telling consumers that the extensions would have a positive effect,” the bureau said.

The Bureau ordered the companies to overhaul their debt collection practices and to provide consumers $44.1 million in cash relief and balance reductions. The companies will also pay a civil penalty of $4.25 million.

“There’s no excuse for lying to your customers, and today’s action will provide millions of dollars in relief for borrowers caught up in Westlake and Wilshire’s deception,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Consumers struggling to pay their bills deserve to be treated with respect, not subjected to illegal threats and deceptive phone calls. We will continue to clean up the debt collection market and root out these illegal and inexcusable practices.”

Read next: A Whopping 80% of Americans Are in Debt

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