Lawyer's Methods, Debtors' Nightmare He's Relentless, No Matter How Small The Debt. His Tactics Are All Legal, He Says.

Posted: June 12, 1994

Edwina Rizzo vividly remembers the day her husband was on life support waiting for a heart transplant and Steven B. Zats called demanding payment of an overdue cable television bill.

Rizzo, of Havertown, says she explained her husband's critical condition and the bill collector replied: "Hey, people get sick and die every day. That's not my problem."

Zats told her in another conversation, she says, to bring payment to his office without delay. "You crawl, you walk, you get a bus," Rizzo remembers him saying, "you do whatever you can to get here."

And that, according to many who have dealt with him, is vintage Steven Zats.

A slender man who dresses in sneakers, blue jeans and T-shirts, Zats, 33, is perhaps the most aggressive - and some say the most unmerciful - small debt collector in the Philadelphia region.

Many of the debtors Zats pursues are poor, unemployed or disabled. Their debts often involve a single unpaid bill - usually a disputed payment for medical services. Most of his 600 clients are doctors, dentists or health-care firms.

Zats, a lawyer, routinely obtains judgments against them, freezes their bank accounts, and adds his own fees to their debts, driving up costs hundreds of dollars.

Case in point: Zats sued a South Philadelphia woman in April who owed just $38 on a medical bill, froze her bank account and - without explanation - seized $445.

Consumer protection officials and legal aid lawyers find many of his practices reprehensible, and believe one tactic is plainly illegal.

Zats says he does nothing illegal.

The Inquirer has obtained information showing that Zats and his sister, Jodi, who manages his office in Wayne, operate an enterprise that contacts debtors under the pretense of doing telephone surveys on the banking industry.

The telephone surveys enable Zats to learn where the debtors bank. Once Zats has the bank name, he goes to court and freezes the debtor's account to collect the judgment. In itself, the freezing of an account under those circumstances is legal.

What is not legal under federal and state law is for debt collectors to use any ruse, deception or misrepresentation in their work.

Susan L. DeJarnatt, a lawyer at Community Legal Services, says:

"These people were lied to. They were tricked into giving information about their banks that was then used to take their bank accounts. I think that is a blatant violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. . . . The deception is so clear; it's about as clear as you could possibly get."

Zats, when asked about his collection practices, denied engaging in illegal activity, but otherwise refused to be interviewed.

In a letter to The Inquirer, he wrote: "I have no interest in your article. However, for the record, my office has never conducted telephone interviews with debtors in order to obtain bank account information."

Several sources with detailed knowledge of Zats' office have described the telephone marketing enterprise and provided hundreds of documents to The Inquirer showing how it operates. The documents include survey forms, names, addresses and phone numbers of debtors who were contacted and notations on those who were fooled into disclosing the names of their banks.

With few exceptions, people whose accounts later were frozen said in interviews they had no idea the telephone survey was a debt collection ploy.

Edwina Rizzo - the woman with the cable TV bill - received a call from a telephone surveyor on Oct. 7 and unsuspectingly answered the caller's questions, disclosing where she banked.

One week later, Zats froze her account.

About the same time, Rizzo received a little blue key ring in the mail, the ''free gift" she was promised for answering the survey questions. It arrived in an unmarked envelope with no return address.

There was a name on the key ring: S & L Marketing Research Co.

Records of the Pennsylvania Corporation Bureau list S & L Marketing Research as a fictitious name registered to Jodi Zats, Steven Zats' sister.

Jodi Zats declined to comment.

"We can't reveal any of our procedures," she said. "That's why we're so successful."

Shortly after making that remark, Jodi Zats filed papers with the Corporation Bureau seeking to cancel the registration of the name S & L Marketing Research.

The Inquirer has examined 70 cases in which debtors' bank accounts were frozen by Steven Zats after S & L Marketing Research Co. called and ascertained the names of their banks.

One of those who made S & L calls was Linda Pearce, Zats' mother-in-law. Survey forms were faxed from Zats' office in Wayne to Pearce's home in New Jersey for several months late last year.

Pearce, when contacted, acknowledged doing the survey work for about four months and being paid a small stipend for making the calls.

She said she stopped making the calls because the surveys seemed to her to be an improper collection tactic. She said she felt sympathy for the people she was calling. If the calls were illegal, Pearce said, "I had no idea."

Consumer protection officials and legal aid lawyers in Philadelphia, Bucks and Montgomery Counties say they have received many complaints about Zats.

No public action has been taken against him by the state Consumer Protection Bureau or the state Disciplinary Board, which enforces ethical rules for lawyers.

And Zats is boastful about that. While he declined to be interviewed, Zats did make this comment:

"We've had complaints filed against us at the Disciplinary Board, at the Consumer Protection Bureau and as we get bigger and bigger I'm surprised you haven't gotten more complaints. There are a ton of idiots out there who don't know the law."

*

When David Morant, of South Philadelphia, got word his savings account at Mellon Bank had been frozen by Zats in pursuit of an $850 bill, he asked

himself: "How did he get my bank account?"

Morant remembered that not long before, he had responded to a telephone survey and had disclosed to the caller that he banked at Mellon. That was on Oct. 4, 1993.

"And the next thing you know," said Morant "Pow."

His account at Mellon was frozen on Nov. 30.

Soon after, he got his free gift in the mail. "A key chain," Morant said, ''and I still have it. It says S & L Marketing Research."

Like many of those pursued by Zats, Morant's debt was from a medical bill - one that stemmed from tests after an automobile accident.

The only reason he hasn't paid the bill, Morant said, is that he has no money to do so. Zats discovered that for himself. When he froze Morant's account, there was only $1.25 in it. "That's all I had," said Morant.

Morant said he is waiting for a claim to be settled from his accident. "I know I owe the bill," he said. "I have no intention of not paying it."

Others interviewed by The Inquirer told similar stories. Some disputed the services for which they had been billed. One was waiting for a worker's compensation claim to be paid. Others said there was an insurance foul-up concerning the bill. But most made one mistake: They ignored notices to pay.

On behalf of his 600 clients, Zats goes after the smallest debtor with intense, almost obsessive purpose.

"My goal in business is to please my clients, not to please the debtors," Zats recently informed his clients in a letter. "Debtors don't like to have their bank accounts frozen and their personal belongings sold to satisfy the debts. Since the debtors have not been concerned with paying the bill . . . my office cannot be concerned if the debtors can't pay their rent because of a frozen bank account."

In many cases, the people he pursues are so nearly destitute that there is almost nothing in their bank accounts.

Even so, he takes what he can get - $23 in one case, $15 in another, $7 in a third.

Operating as Steven B. Zats & Associates, Zats employs three other lawyers and a bevy of secretaries and assistants who work full time in pursuit - at any given time - of 15,000 to 20,000 collection accounts.

One former employee said Zats freezes, on average, 150 bank accounts a month.

For the person whose account is frozen, the costs are high. Banks charge freeze-fees up to $250. And Zats, who receives a percentage of everything he collects for his clients, often adds attorney's fees and interest to the debtor after an account has been frozen.

Someone from S & L Marketing Research reached the home of John Grivner, of Blue Bell, on Oct. 5.

Grivner's wife, Cynthia, told the caller she and her husband banked at Mellon.

On Dec. 29, Zats, in quest of an $880 dental bill, froze the Grivners' checking account there.

The Grivners had been involved in a long dispute over the bill. But Cynthia Grivner said they had decided to pay it and had sent a check for $880 to Zats' office shortly before their account was frozen.

Without explanation, Zats seized another $300 from their account.

The Grivners were stunned.

"I'm aware as a consumer," said the wife, "but this just threw me for a loop. I don't know what the $300 was for."

The Grivners went to a lawyer for help. But the advice they got was the same that many others have heard from private lawyers when they seek help fighting Zats. Said Cynthia Grivner: "He said it's going to cost us more to fight him than to pay him."

So they let the matter drop.

Legal aid lawyers in Philadelphia, Montgomery and Bucks Counties say they receive complaints regularly from poor people who are being pursued by Zats.

Susan DeJarnatt, of Community Legal Services, made a connection between Zats and S & L Marketing Research earlier this year when two clients came to her office in distress because their bank accounts had been frozen. Each had participated in an S & L telephone survey.

"I was gullible, all right?" says Viola Hartman, of Kensington, one of DeJarnatt's clients. "They called and said it was a survey on banks and all this."

Hartman is 63 and a widow. She works as a part-time housekeeper in a Philadelphia public school.

She owed $1,500 for a laser surgery bill which she believed her insurance was supposed to pay.

It didn't.

Zats sued to collect.

When someone from S & L Marketing Research called earlier this year, Hartman disclosed that she banked at CoreStates Bank.

In February, Zats froze her account there and cleaned it out.

Hartman bounced checks for her water and telephone bills.

"I didn't even know that they could do such a thing to you," she said. ''I'm two months behind on everything now because of it. I'm behind in my mortgage, my gas bill . . . "

It is not always necessary for S & L Marketing Research to do a telephone survey to determine where a debtor banks.

Sometimes, Zats already knows.

That is because many people have worked out payment agreements with him and

sent him installments by check.

Many also have signed a paper called a "confession of judgment," which can have devastating consequences.

The document empowers Zats to go to court and clamp a judgment on them the moment they fall behind in their payments.

He does it routinely.

And he includes a provision that allows him to add interest and his fees to the bill.

Geraldine Cropper, of South Philadelphia, says she had no idea what she was signing when, to comply with terms set by Zats, she put her name on a confession of judgment in January 1993.

Cropper, 57, whose job as a power machine operator at the Defense Supply Center was phased out last year, signed the document as part of an agreement to pay an overdue $311 bill for medical tests.

For about a year, Cropper faithfully sent Zats payments of $25-a-month.

Early this year, she mailed what she thought was the final installment. But she miscalculated. She still owed one final payment.

Cropper said Zats never contacted her to ask for the last $25 check.

Rather, on April 22, he sued her, claiming she still owed $38 on her bill.

To that amount, he tacked on $44 in interest and $150 for attorney's fees, pushing her debt to $233.

Cropper was dumbfounded.

But the situation soon got worse.

Zats froze her account at the Defense Supply Federal Credit Union. He knew where she banked from the checks she had sent him.

On May 27, a lawyer from Zats' office filed court papers to seize $445.05

from the account.

"Why would somebody take all that money from me when I only owe $25?" Cropper asked.

She called Zats for an explanation. By way of answer, she said, "He hung up the phone on me."

Conrad Moore, 40, was a drug addict for 24 years. Six years ago, he shook the habit, pulled himself together and got into Christian mission work.

Moore works in a halfway house for prison convicts in Schwenksville, Montgomery County.

He owed $327 to a chiropractor - a bill he says he thought was covered by his health insurance.

In December, Moore got a call from S & L Marketing Research. He revealed to the caller his bank: Union National Bank & Trust Co.

There, he kept four small savings accounts for his grandchildren. Total deposits were $131.

On Jan. 25, Zats froze those accounts. Everything in them was wiped out by the bank's freeze-fees.

After that, Moore called Zats and agreed to make installment payments to repay the bill.

He even opened a checking account for the first time in his life because Zats wanted to be paid by check.

Zats also told Moore to send all the payments at once, each check written for $25 and post-dated.

Moore said his bank advised him against writing post-dated checks.

Zats refused to accept payment on any other terms.

When Moore sent a $25 check, Zats returned it.

On April 14, Zats froze Moore's new checking account - just in time to cause his rent check and electric check to bounce. The bank charged a $250 freeze-fee.

Collegeville attorney Thomas M. Keenan telephoned Zats in Moore's behalf.

By Keenan's calculations, Moore's bill should have been down to about $125. But Zats told him the total, with fees and interest, was more than $600 and ''growing every day."

Keenan tried to explain: Moore did mission work. His finances were meager. The soaring debt was hurting him badly. His credit was being ruined.

Zats was unmoved. He suggested Moore go to McDonald's or Burger King for work.

"It was just infuriating," said Keenan. "I said, 'Mr. Zats, you're incredible.'

"He said, 'Thank you.' "

Wanda Wilkerson, of Frankford, hasn't worked since 1990 when she fell and injured her back at her job in a supermarket.

While a protracted worker's compensation case has dragged on, Zats has been dunning her for a $1,950 bill for medical tests.

"I know the bills are my responsibility," Wilkerson said. "I want these bills paid."

But she can't pay, she said, until her worker's comp claim is settled.

In December, Zats sued her to collect.

Around the same time, Wilkerson got a call from S & L Marketing Research. She disclosed that she had a savings account at Mellon.

Soon, she received S & L's blue key ring in the mail.

Then, on March 22, Zats froze her bank account.

It contained $141 - money from Social Security for Wilkerson's 11-year-old son, who is disabled.

Zats was barred from taking the money.

Even so, Wilkerson said: "I don't rest easy because I still think this man is going to come after me."

The same day she uttered those words, Zats called and threatened to auction her furniture.

"I just hope Mr. Zats is stopped," Wilkerson said. "Whatever it takes."

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