It was the rape threat that did it. Rhode Island salesman Andrew Therrien got a call from a debt collector in 2015 claiming he owed $700 on a payday loan. The 33-year-old was certain he didn't owe anything and thought he was being scammed. “I’m a person who believes in personal friggin’ responsibility,” Therrien says. He argued with the collector, who threatened to find Therrien and rape his wife. "You just opened up a door that got really f---ing ugly, and now I’m going to make sure that I just ruin your life," Therrien recalls thinking. From that moment on, Therrien was "obsessed with payback." He spent the next year "living out a revenge fantasy" as he worked his way up "a ladder of dirty debt collectors," Bloomberg reports in a long-read about "phantom debt" and a man pushed too far.
Phantom debt as a scam has been around for hundreds of years, but it's become systematic in the past five. Victims' information is collected online, formatted into a list of debts, and sold to "unscrupulous" collectors. It's an easy scam, and one that has ensnared millions of Americans. Usually debt collectors can placate angry targets by assuring them they won't be called again. Not Therrien. "In spirit, he was a bit like Liam Neeson’s vigilante character in the movie Taken," Bloomberg reports. Therrien, a "savant" on the phone, used his sales skills, blackmail, and harassment—his techniques were uncomfortably close to "the debt collectors he loathed"—to climb the phantom-debt ladder. One of Therrien's targets says the salesman was on "an outright vigilante crusade." Read the full story here for what happened when Therrien found the man at the top of the ladder. (Read more Longform stories.)