Emma Courtland: Hey, folks. A quick word before we get started. This episode contains graphic language and references to sexual violence. Take care when listening.
Emma: Tell me about the day this got started.
Andrew Therrien: Can you guys hold on for one quick second?
Emma: This is Andrew Therrien.
Andrew Therrien: Sorry. I don't mean to do this, but it's a business thing and I just have to ...
Emma: No, it's totally fine.
Andrew Therrien: Hi, how are ya? I only have a quick second, but ...
Emma: Andrew gets a lot of calls. He's a salesman, but he works from home, so most of his business happens over the phone.
Andrew Therrien: Hey, David. How are you?
Emma: Anyone who knows Andrew knows that when he's working, he goes into what he calls the "work zone." The work zone is where he blocks out everything except his current objective. But Andrew's also very distractible. It's the reason he works from home. His bedroom, actually—which is where he is now—The walls in his bedroom are white. There's nothing hanging on them, no art or family photos. Nothing to distract him from the task at hand. But one day, in early of 2015, a distraction found its way in, and everything sort of unraveled from there.
Andrew Therrien: Thank you. Bye. Thank you for your patience.
Emma: [laughs] Okay. So let's start from the beginning.
Andrew Therrien: So I'm in this work zone, plugging away, doing my thing on the phone. You know, everyday conversation, you know, got the shades down, Don't really want to see the squirrel outside. I just want to be focused on getting what needs to get done.
Emma: But then, the phone buzzes. It's Andrew's grandma. He sends it to voicemail.
Andrew Therrien: Love her to death, but it's just sort of like, I can have that conversation after dinner is done.
Emma: But then the phone rings again. This time it's his brother, which is weird because they rarely talk.
Andrew Therrien: I'm like, what is wrong with everybody? Like, don't they know that I'm trying to work? Like, trying to get stuff done. So, like, I ignore the call from my grandmother. I ignore the call from my brother. And then all of a sudden when my wife calls, I'm thinking, "Oh crap. You know, who died?"
Emma: Andrew answers the call from his wife.
Andrew Therrien: And she's like, "What is going on? Are you okay?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm fine. What's going on?" She's like, "I just got this voicemail from somebody on my cell phone, that's like a really authoritarian-sounding guy. He's saying, like, you're in trouble, and you have been notified about some debt that you owe that you never paid back."
Emma: Apparently, Andrew's brother and grandmother had gotten the exact same message.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, voicemail: This information is intended for Andrew Therrien. I'm contacting you regarding the order that was submitted to my office this morning. I need to verify an address to present you with your formal claim. You are officially notified.]
Emma: The thing is, Andrew doesn't have any debt. In fact, this is a huge point of pride for him. He grew up, like many of us, in a house with money problems. Where dinnertime phone calls from debt collectors were a daily occurrence. And he'd worked really hard to make sure that never happened to his family. So the idea that his wife was getting calls from debt collectors? For him, it was kind of a nightmare.
Andrew Therrien: So now I'm sitting there saying, "Everything's fine. He's not who he says he is. It's bullshit. I'm gonna get to the bottom of this." As I'm talking to her, I get a phone call from 000-000-0000. And I'm like, "It's probably the guy. Hold on one second. You know, I'll call you right back." And I answer the phone, and it's the guy.
Emma: The guy tells Andrew he does indeed have an outstanding debt: $700 from a payday loan that Andrew took out years ago. Payday loans are basically quickie loans, often used to tide someone over until their next payday—hence the name. Andrew remembers taking out the payday loan. One of his bosses stiffed him on a commission, and he needed money fast. But he also remembers paying it back, like, almost immediately. Which means this guy is ...
Andrew Therrien: Full of shit. So now I'm being combative with this guy. Like, "How do you sleep at night knowing that this is what you do for a living?" And he's like, "Sir? Sir? Do not take that tone with me. Do not take that tone with me. I'm giving you the opportunity to take care of this in a proactive fashion." "Dude, you know what? I'm home. Come get me. If you are who you say you are, I'm home. I'll be here." Hang up the phone.
Emma: And for a moment, it seems like that's gonna be the end of it. But then ...
Andrew Therrien: He calls back. I'm like, "What the fuck do you want?"
Emma: That's when the guy says the thing that'll end up changing Andrew's life. He says ...
Andrew Therrien: "Sir, I hope you are home. I'm gonna come by, I'm gonna beat the fuck out of you, teach you a lesson and rape your wife in front of you."
Emma: So, of course, Andrew just loses his fucking mind.
Andrew Therrien: And I was like, "You did it now. I'm gonna fucking ruin your life. I'm gonna find you. I'm gonna figure out who you are, and I'm gonna ruin your fucking life."
Emma: Andrew hangs up the phone. His face is pulsing with fury.
Andrew Therrien: Blood pressure's through the roof. I'm in complete fight mode. One, I need to make sure that he's actually not coming here to do any sort of physical harm. And then once I figure out who he is, how do I make sure that I hold this prick accountable? And, where the hell did they get my information from? And that was the spark.
Emma: That spark lit a fuse inside Andrew. Thousands of phone calls, millions of people and billions of dollars later, Andrew would get the answers to his questions. And in the process, he'd uncover an entire criminal syndicate, all from the comfort of his own bedroom. I'm Emma Courtland. This is Crime Show.
Emma: Nobody showed up at Andrew's door that night. Or ever. And for me—and I think for most people—that would have been the end of the story. But the thing you're gonna realize is, Andrew Therrien is not most people. He was furious. He spent the whole next day walking around like a cartoon tea kettle. All he could think about was this scumbag, and how he got Andrew's information. He had the guy's name and the callback number from the voicemail. So Andrew dialed the collection agency.
Andrew Therrien: So I call that number. I get a woman on the line who's sitting there saying, "Oh, I don't know who that person is, but if you'd like to resolve it, I can sit there and make sure that you don't get arrested today."
Emma: First, you can't get arrested for unpaid loans. Andrew knows that. But even if you could, Andrew was certain he'd paid this thing.
Andrew Therrien: And immediately I'm like, "Yeah. No, that's bullshit. Like, send me something, show me something."
Emma: Like, show me something that proves this debt is real. She can't. So Andrew calls the original lender and asks for proof that the debt was paid—a receipt, basically. And they send him one, which Andrew forwards to the collection agency. And the collection agency backs off. And again, this feels like it should be the end of the story. Just one rogue meathead freaking out over a clerical error. But it wasn't.
Andrew Therrien: It wasn't just him. He was the first phone call. Over the next two weeks, I received six more of these phone calls.
Emma: Six more calls from six different collection agencies. All for the same debt that Andrew didn't even owe. What's more, they all seemed to be operating from the same playbook. Andrew owed money, and if he didn't pay, as the female robot says in this actual voicemail to Andrew ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, voicemail: You will be taken under custody by the local cops. There are four serious allegations pressed on your name at this moment. We would request you to get back to us so that we can discuss about this case before taking any legal action against you.]
Emma: It didn't make sense. Andrew had proof the debt was paid, so why was he still getting these calls? There had to be something he was missing. So Andrew spent days digging into his own financial history, but he found nothing that would explain what was going on. So as far as Andrew was concerned, that left only one option: the whole thing was a scam.
Andrew Therrien: This was a big network of scammers that were working in conjunction with each other to coordinate the scam across the country.
Emma: Okay. So I know this sounds crazy, but this scam Andrew's talking about? It actually has a name: phantom debt. Phantom debt schemes have been around for ages, and they've taken a bunch of different forms. The major throughline, though, is people getting hassled to pay back money that they don't actually owe, either because they already paid it back, or because it never existed in the first place.
Emma: It's a very special kind of fraud that targets mostly poor people. Based on the idea that people who need to borrow money—that is, people who don't have money—probably owe so much money that they won't be able to distinguish their real debts from their fake ones, so they'll fork over money to these guys, thinking the debt's real. I know. It's so gross.
Emma: Just last month I got one of these calls from quote, "Thomas" at the quote, "Student Loan Defense Center." When I Googled the company, the first thing that came up was an alert from the Better Business Bureau. Apparently, the company, like most of these fake debt operations, didn't actually know anything about the people they were calling. They'd essentially just opened the white pages and started fishing for suckers. But if you don't call them back, usually they stop calling you.
Emma: The weird thing about Andrew's situation was that, again, the calls just kept coming from all of these different companies who were all trying to collect on the same debt. Which is the other thing that was so weird about it. See, debt is an industry like any other. Debts can be bought and sold like any other item—like a car. And like a car, your debt can be sold over and over again, dozens of times, creating a vertical ladder or a chain of sale. But also like a car, your debt should never be in the hands of more than one person at a time.
Emma: But based on the calls he was getting, to Andrew, it seemed like that ladder had splintered at some point, possibly even at many points. Someone had sold, or was actively selling his debt, not just once, but dozens of times. And then those buyers were selling the debt to other people who were selling it to other people, until there were dozens of collection agencies who thought they owned Andrew's one debt. Which again, had actually been paid off years ago. Fake debt scammers typically use fake numbers and names, so for most people who get caught up in phantom debt schemes, there's really no recourse. They just kind of have to put up with the harassment. But again, Andrew Therrien is not most people.
Andrew Therrien: They sort of went into this thinking if you were dumb and poor enough to take out a payday loan, you're not gonna come after us. And I'm like, "Oh, well, picked the wrong guy, little fucks."
Emma: Someone out there was selling Andrew's information. To stop the calls, he had to stop the sale. To stop the sale, he had to find out who was selling. All Andrew needed was a name. So that's what he set out to get. If he started climbing that chain of sale, he would—or should—eventually find the person who started this. Fielding these debt collectors became like a game to Andrew. He started an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the information he collected, all the names and numbers of everyone who called him. And he titled it "Scums.xls." Andrew loved working on this spreadsheet. After a long day of sales calls, calling scumbags was the thing he looked forward to.
Andrew Therrien: So work is done for the day. Wife goes to bed, and I'm just, like, rearing to go. Like, I've been waiting to do this all day. I'm hungry. Go on, flip open the computer and just start researching, figuring out do I reverse phone number lookups? Things like that. I'm using their own technology, going into online databases to figure out this guy's cell phone number and calling him at his house to say, "Hey, I know who you are, I know you're bullshit, and the gig is up."
Emma: And the crazy thing is, because these guys really were bullshit, as soon as Andrew called them out, they flipped. They gave him names and numbers.
Andrew Therrien: They were just pretty much like, "Yeah, I got it from so-and-so who bought it from so-and-so, who bought it from so-and-so."
Emma: Andrew charted a path up this ladder of debt, recording in his spreadsheet the name of every so-and-so who bought his debt, and every so-and-so that sold it, working his way up this chain of sale.
Andrew Therrien: I worked my way up, and all roads lead to the same guy.
Emma: The guy's name was Joel Tucker. All Andrew had to do was bring him in. Andrew added Joel's name to the top of his list of scums, and sent it in to The Federal Trade Commission. And then he waited for them to call. But when the call finally came, Andrew realized they'd essentially sent him to customer service.
Andrew Therrien: And the woman sitting there going, "Well, you understand that there's not a debtor's prison out there, and you should put a hold on your credit report." And I'm like, "Miss. That was so long ago in the grand scheme of this whole thing. I'm so past this point. I've worked on this for, like, four months, and I'm ready to go in front of the jury and prosecute this shit."
Emma: Okay, but Andrew didn't have any evidence that Joel was the mastermind of this fake debt scheme. All he had was a list of names on a spreadsheet, and the word of a few dubious characters who claimed Joel was the guy pulling the strings. But that didn't change the fact that this was happening, and as far as Andrew could tell, nobody was doing anything to stop it.
Andrew Therrien: I really didn't understand how the government works on these things. Like, I'm sitting there saying, if you see a crime in progress, you're obligated to go and do something about it.
Emma: Andrew was certain Joel was the man behind the curtain. And if the regulators weren't gonna do something about it, then Andrew would have to. He began by deploying his search tricks. There wasn't a lot of information about Joel online, and most of the information that was available didn't seem terribly reliable, until Andrew stumbled upon this one article from an alt-weekly based in Kansas City, Missouri. The article described how Kansas City had become a kind of boom town for the online money-lending industry. And Joel Tucker was right in the middle of it. Apparently, Joel owned a kind of software company that acted as a middleman between moneylenders and would-be borrowers. So if you applied for a loan online, Joel's company would collect your information, run an instant credit check, then auction off your file to one of the companies that actually does the lending.
Emma: That's how it was supposed to work. But Andrew started thinking, if Joel had access to all this information, all these names and social security numbers, could he have just packaged it up and sold it as debt? There was so little regulation over the debt collection industry, what was to stop him from selling old debts as new debts, fake debts as real ones? The more Andrew thought about it the more he became convinced that that was what Joel was doing. Exposing Joel's fake debt scam became Andrew's singular mission. He didn't know it yet, but that mission would come to consume him.
Emma: Andrew couldn't find Joel, so he started looking for any person who was even remotely associated with him. He tracked down business associates, employees, casual acquaintances, ex wives. He'd sweat them for information about Joel's whereabouts, and even turned some to his cause. But other interactions were less pretty. This one time, Andrew thought he was calling one of Joel's colleagues and inadvertently called the guy's mother-in-law. But instead of hanging up and walking away ...
Andrew Therrien: I proceeded to educate his mother-in-law about who her son-in-law was.
Emma: If Andrew was Captain Ahab, Joel was his elusive white whale. And like Ahab, Andrew often got so fixated on his hunt, he lost touch with reality.
Andrew Therrien: My intentions were to hurt somebody emotionally. And that was definitely a time when, you know, the next day I'm sat there, I was like, "All right, crazy person. How about you fucking chill out a little bit?"
Emma: But Andrew couldn't chill out a little bit. It had been almost a year since that first call, and he was still seething. His hunt for Joel Tucker was bordering on obsessive, and his wife was getting worried.
Andrew Therrien: She was somebody who came to me and said, "What are you doing this for? Like, why are you doing this? Because I'm concerned. This is becoming too much."
Emma: She told him they had to set some boundaries. Andrew would only work on his scums project at night after everyone was in bed, and he wouldn't let it spill into his work or family time. But even then, he was thinking about it constantly.
Andrew Therrien: What I was doing was feeding a wolf. And when you feed a wolf that much and then you try and cut it off, it becomes hungry, right? And I didn't really understand it at first, what was sort of driving me. I just knew that it was something that I felt I had to do.
Emma: Andrew didn't understand what was wrong with him, why he'd become so obsessed with bringing down Joel Tucker. But like so many other disproportionate reactions, Andrew came to realize that this one was seeded in childhood. There was a lot of debt in Andrew's parents' house. A lot of collection calls, too. But beyond that—or maybe because of it—the Therrien house was filled with conflict. Every day felt like a fight. Andrew felt powerless to stop the things that were happening to him. And he felt like the people who had the power to stop it, didn't.
Emma: So when he got out at 16, Andrew vowed to build a different life than the one he was born into. He fought his way into a job, and fought his way through school. And then he met and married the most patient woman in the world. They started a life together, and Andrew didn't have to fight anymore. Until the day he got that first call, and all those old feelings of fear and powerlessness got stirred up again. But once he actually started making calls, he realized he wasn't powerless anymore. He could defend himself. And other people too.
Andrew Therrien: I was able to pull myself out of this. I can see other people who couldn't defend themselves the way that I can defend myself right now. And if I don't take care of the people who are most vulnerable, all of my pain, all of the shit that I went through, all of the struggles that I had to get until that point were for nothing, because I wasn't trying to give back and give meaning to what all of my pain was.
Emma: Andrew wanted to defend regular people—people like him, who'd been desperate enough to take out a payday loan, and who were now paying for it for the sin of being broke.
Andrew Therrien: As you're talking to these people in the call centers, you can hear how many people they're talking to in the background. It's like a casino almost, because you just hear people grinding out on the phones, yelling at people, you know, threatening people on the phone.
Emma: From the sounds of it, the scam was gaining momentum. If he was ever gonna get the federal regulators to pay attention, he was going to need materials he couldn't find in the public record. To get that, he needed a friend. Someone on the inside. And that's when someone on the inside called.
Emma: It began as business as usual: a debt collection manager telling Andrew that he owed money, and Andrew telling the guy he was perpetrating a scam. Except this time was different. Instead of the guy arguing with him, he actually starts to listen. Now Andrew sees his in. Because as a salesman, all he really needs is a willing ear. So Andrew starts asking the manager—whose name is Michael—to talk about himself. Where are you from? You have kids? It's a sales tactic, but what he hears is a familiar tale. Michael starts telling him about growing up broke, and how he's always struggled.
Andrew Therrien: And I almost, like, implanted into his brain that these are people just like him that he's victimizing.
Emma: It seems to strike a chord with Michael. They keep talking for a few days, and then one day ...
Andrew Therrien: And he comes to me and he says, "You got to understand where I'm at. I need $500." And I'm like, "Oh, there's the hook. You're taking the long game on this one." And he's like, "No, you don't understand. They own my apartment. And I literally don't have any money. I'm essentially an indentured servant of theirs. They provide my housing. They provide everything for me. They come pick me up and bring me into work. I need to get home. I'll tell you everything."
Emma: Andrew had spent all this time believing the victims in this scam were the people getting called and the people making the calls were the villains. But this guy seemed every bit in need of protecting as everyone else.
Andrew Therrien: If I send you $500 so you can go and leave and get back to your essentially, mom's house, you need to send me every document that you can get your hands on in the next 24 hours before you quit. And he said, "Fine." So he went and he grabbed anything that he could get his hands on without being suspicious.
Emma: Andrew had no idea what was coming. This could be the mother lode, or it could be a load of crap. There was no reason for Andrew to trust Michael, but he decided to do it anyway. Money in exchange for documents. The day of the trade comes.
Andrew Therrien: I was at the Stop and Shop near my house with $500 in a Western Union thing. And we essentially were like two people in a standoff in the wild, wild west. Sort of like, take 12 steps. "You go first." "No, you go first," kind of thing. "Michael, I will send this to you, but you need to send it to me first." "Man, you're full of shit. Like, come on. I really need your help here. I'm quitting. I'm leaving. I'm turning my life upside down, just so I can get you this information." I said, "Who do you think's the more trustworthy person? The guy who proved that all this debt's fake, or the guy who runs the collection shop?" I said, "You need to show me a sign of good faith."
Emma: Michael asked for a couple minutes to think about it.
Andrew Therrien: I actually do a loop, so I'm just not a random person standing there with my phone, not actually talking. So I'm walking through, like, looking at the bananas or whatever, and it's just silent. And I'm like, "Oh, those are nice cantaloupes." And I'm just wondering, like, when is Michael going to, like, decide that he's either gonna do this or not? So now I'm about halfway down the chip aisle, and he's like, "All right, I'll do it." I said, "Okay, great. Once I see it come through—" He's got connection issues, but now I'm thinking he's bullshitting me, right? I'm like, "Michael, unless I see it in my email, I'm not sending you the money." But it's always when you need to send that email is the one time that it never works. And that was what was actually happening on his side. So now the email comes through, like, five times in a row, rapid-fire.
Emma: The subject line said, "Have faith in a good heart."
Andrew Therrien: And I race home and just start opening everything up. I'm looking through and I'm like, "This is nuts!"
Emma: Michael had come through—and then some. Here, laid out in front of Andrew was, ostensibly, a phantom debt starter kit, containing about $40-million in fake debt—including his own. There were other documents too: chains of sales and lists of collectors, and names that he'd been trying to connect for months, all close colleagues of Joel's. Some were even Joel's employees, all together like a fake debt family tree. The only name missing was the one he most needed to find.
Emma: Andrew had spent months chumming the waters of Kansas City. He'd baited Joel's friends and business partners into talking, but he'd never gotten so much as a nibble from Joel. Suddenly, with this new dirt, Andrew got something better.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Therrien: I just missed a call from this number.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joel Tucker: Yeah, it's Joel. What's up?]
Emma: It was the white whale himself.
Emma: Okay, so before we play this Joel call, there's two things you need to know. First, Joel doesn't know he's being recorded. And in a lot of states that's illegal. But Andrew lives in Rhode Island, where that is totally fair game and admissible as evidence in court. The second thing you need to know is that, while this call is technically legal, answering it could get Andrew in big trouble—with his wife.
Emma: Remember that deal they made about Andrew only working on his scums project at night after the family has gone to bed? Well, now the phone is ringing, and it's the guy he's been chasing for almost a year. And thanks to Michael, he has this huge cache of documents he can use as leverage. The problem? It's two o' clock in the afternoon.
Andrew Therrien: As much as I was trying to be an alpha male in that scenario and get the testosterone running and all this other stuff, I'm also in the back of my mind knowing that my wife probably wears the pants here, and I'm not afraid or ashamed to admit it.
Emma: Andrew was afraid of showing weakness with Joel, but he was even more afraid of his wife. So he let the call go to voicemail. Then grabbed his laptop, ran to the bathroom and quickly redialed the number.
Andrew Therrien: So I'm literally in my master bathroom, sitting on the side of the tub. So I'm being cowardly at the same time as I'm trying to be brave. And I got the phone on speaker with my computer up on the sink next to it, recording the frickin' conversation.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Therrien: I missed a call from this number.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joel Tucker: Yeah, it's Joel. What's up?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Therrien: What's going on?]
Emma: Listening to these conversations, I was struck by how chummy they were.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joel Tucker: How can I help you?]
Emma: Like, this is supposed to be Andrew's nemesis. Why is he being so nice?
Andrew Therrien: Salesman 101.
Emma: Andrew knew that if he answered Joel's "How can I help you?" with a typical Andrew response, like, say, "Eat shit and die," he probably wouldn't keep Joel on the phone for very long. So he decided to start by calmly laying out the accusation.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Therrien: You go out and you sell a debt portfolio. And the only thing I can't understand is why, through all these months, figuring you've known my name and that I'm not going away, why my name keeps getting sold inside those?]
Emma: But Joel was pretty quick to deny it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joel Tucker: I don't collect on the files myself.]
Emma: And that's more or less how the entire phone call went: Andrew would accuse, Joel would deny.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joel Tucker: I've sold over a billion dollars worth of debt files for ten plus years, dude.]
Emma: It was frustrating, but Andrew knew to keep his temper. He thought that if he could just keep Joel talking, Joel would eventually hang himself with his own words. The call ended, but Joel agreed to talk again. And it went down the same way. Press record, get Joel talking.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Therrien: What documentation can you get me on Harbor and Dave Dyer?]
Emma: And they ended up talking kind of a lot.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joel Tucker: 'Sup, Andrew?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Therrien: How's it going?]
Emma: Like, for months and months.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joel Tucker: Are you working?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Therrien: Yup. Getting ready for Christmas.]
Emma: And in all that time, no confession from Joel. But he had no problem throwing his colleagues under the bus.
Andrew Therrien: And what I was doing was I was getting him to rat out all of his friends, and I was documenting it beautifully, wrapping it up in a package and providing it to every regulator who would be interested.
Emma: Andrew was sending recordings of these calls to the regulators, along with all the documents he got from Michael. In fact, he was emailing them a lot.
Andrew Therrien: And then as I'm doing my digging, they're actually getting frustrated with me because they're like, "Stop doing that!"
Emma: The Federal Trade Commission wouldn't comment on Andrew's investigation specifically, but when we asked generally why they'd discourage a civilian from investigating a commission case, one representative said ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP, FTC representative: We are concerned about the target becoming aware of our investigation because of the danger that the target or people working with the target will destroy evidence or secret assets.]
Andrew Therrien: And for me, I'm sitting there writing these long, ridiculous friggin' emails with backup documentation, and they're like, "Dude, chill. Please leave it to the professionals. You are not one of them."
Emma: By now, it had been over two years since Andrew had gotten that first call and this whole mess had started. And not only was Joel getting away with what he'd done, he was still doing it. And Andrew was starting to lose faith that anything was going to happen. And then Andrew got some news about Michael, the "Have faith in a good heart" guy? After the document dump, Andrew did help him get home to his mom. And they actually stayed in touch. Michael was really just a kid that was struggling to make good, which was something that Andrew understood implicitly. So when Michael was ready to start working again, Andrew helped him find a job.
Andrew Therrien: The night that he sent me all the information, he packed up all his shit and moved three hours away. And I helped them get a job at a grocery store so he could get away from the debt collection world.
Emma: But then, right when it seemed like Michael was starting to get his life together ...
Andrew Therrien: He overdosed on heroin. And his mother found him in his bed with the needle still in his arm. He was a great kid. He was a great kid.
Emma: Michael had never met Joel Tucker, and his problems had started long before he got tangled up with Joel's scheme. But to Andrew, Michael's death was intrinsically tied to phantom debt. He'd never really been able to recover from his time in the call center. And he wasn't the only one. A year earlier, another lender Andrew knew had shot himself. Two years before that, Joel's own brother had thrown himself off a bridge. Phantom debt was ruining people's lives. Thousands of people were being terrorized by collectors. They were losing their homes, declaring bankruptcy. Innocent people like Andrew, like Michael, who never really got a chance to go straight. Maybe it was Michael's death, maybe Andrew just ran out of patience. But he decided to drop the "bro" act with Joel.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Therrien: You sold my personal information 21 separate times. That got me close to 100 fucking calls. I'm gonna make sure that that kind of shit ends now.]
Emma: One night, Andrew took inventory of all the materials he'd collected. Every spreadsheet, every diagram. It was really no wonder the regulators were struggling to pin this thing on Joel. The whole architecture of the phantom debt scheme was intentionally confusing. Brilliantly confusing, actually. There was art to it. A T.S. Eliot poem in fake numbers and names. And that's when a light went off in Andrew's head. He realized there's no way Joel engineered this thing himself. Andrew had spent months bro-ing down with Joel, and if he'd learned just one thing from those conversations, it was that ...
Andrew Therrien: This guy's a fucking idiot when it comes to business. This guy couldn't run a lemonade stand to save his life.
Emma: In other words, someone else must have put this thing together. The question was, who? Andrew dashed to his computer and opened the email from Michael, subject line, "Have Faith in a Good Heart."
Andrew Therrien: And what I did was I looked into the metadata of the file.
Emma: That's the thing that tells you who authored the original document. And there he found it: the smoking gun.
Andrew Therrien: And I found the software guy.
Emma: Joel's software guy, Rob Harsh. If Joel was the guy who dreamed up this whole phantom debt scheme, Rob was the guy who brought those dreams to life.
Andrew Therrien: I sent it to the Federal Trade Commission. And when I said, "Hey, Rob Harsh is your guy helping Joel. He's the brains behind the curtain," within minutes, they responded back and said, "Andrew, when are you available? We need to talk about this as soon as possible."
Emma: It was the vindication he'd been waiting for. Rob Harsh ended up giving the federal regulators what they needed to build a case against Joel. Not only was Joel selling the same debt simultaneously, according to Rob, Joel was straight up inventing debt. Through Joel's software business, he'd been packaging up lists of names and information of people who'd applied for loans online—regardless of whether or not they'd actually borrowed money—and sold them to collection agencies as debt portfolios. Under oath, Rob admitted that Joel had directed him to add an arbitrary dollar amount to every name on the spreadsheet, so that even the people who'd paid their debts looked like they still owed money. It was real evidence of fraud. At last.
Emma: In July, 2020, Joel Tucker pleaded guilty to charges stemming from phantom debt and tax evasion.
Andrew Therrien: Hey, Emma. How's it going?
Emma: It's going well. So it's been a minute.
Emma: After we first ran this story in the spring of 2021, there were new developments in Joel's case. So we called Andrew.
Andrew Therrien: It has. And hey, check it out behind me.
Emma: There's stuff on your wall! [laughs]
Andrew Therrien: I hung some shit on the walls just for you.
Emma: Thank you so much. I love that. You didn't have to do that.
Emma: The walls of Andrew's bedroom are no longer bare. There is now one piece of art. Not enough to be distracting, though. Even though Joel Tucker pleaded guilty over a year ago, and this whole thing seemed to be over, it wasn't. The judge set a sentencing hearing and Joel didn't show up. So they set a new hearing. But as the date was approaching, no one could find Joel. Enter Andrew.
Andrew Therrien: So I end up hearing through the grapevine from one of his friends who lives down in Florida that he wasn't planning on coming. I'm like, "I'll see about that." So I used my network to reach out to them and said, "Hey, have you seen Joel? Like, where's he at?"
Emma: This friend told Andrew that they saw Joel's Jeep at his girlfriend's place in Vail, Colorado.
Andrew Therrien: And I'm like, "Okay, cool." So I call Eagle County Sheriff's Department. Said, "Hey, there's a warrant out for this guy's arrest right now."
Emma: The police showed up, and Joel wasn't there. But they spoke with his girlfriend, who told them that Joel was planning to get on a flight in Denver the next morning.
Andrew Therrien: And when he showed up to the airport the next morning, they put him in cuffs and shackles in the terminal, and then he had a greeting party in Kansas City to make sure that they took him in. So the sheriff's office took him in from there. So that was kind of cool.
Emma: So yet again, you are the one that is responsible for taking Joel Tucker down.
Andrew Therrien: Hey, if somebody else won't, I'll finish the job. I've taken it this far, I guess.
Emma: In the end, Joel Tucker was sentenced to 12 and a half years, and ordered to pay over 8 million dollars in restitution to the IRS. He's currently in prison serving his sentence. As for Andrew, he says he's still getting calls about that old loan he paid off years ago. But these days the calls are way fewer and farther between. And the callers? They're not only not demanding he pay it back, they're barely even suggesting it.
Andrew Therrien: One person even gave me an explanation of, like, mainly we're calling you to see if you would do the right thing and pay it. And I was like, "I don't even know how to respond to that shit right now. Like, what are you even talking about? Like, that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. You're asking me to just give you money. You should just stand at the corner of Wendy's with a sign saying, "God bless," and you're probably gonna collect more money.
Emma: Whether or not Andrew's crusade is in any way responsible for this unexpected change of tone, who knows? But there have been these other, more tangible signs that he's made an impact.
Andrew Therrien: Probably the most interesting one was an ex-girlfriend from college reached out and was like, "I don't know if you know this, but I went through the same thing."
Emma: Oh my God!
Andrew Therrien: She's like, "I got harassed. My parents got harassed. My family. You know, different people in my circle were getting calls on behalf of me. I know I didn't owe the money." And she was just like, "I was too ashamed to say anything. And I was listening to your podcast." And she started crying in the car.
Emma: Oh my God!
Andrew Therrien: You know, like, holy crap. Like, it kind of came full circle.
Emma: It's nice for Andrew to hear those kinds of affirmations, but this work has taken a toll on him, so he's trying to slow down. Take better care of himself. Which is not to say he's finished with this whole thing. His quest to stop debt scammers is definitely not over, but these days he's putting more of his energy into just being a good husband and a dad to his two kids. And for the most part, his nights of being online hunting bad guys are behind him. But knowing Andrew, this probably won’t be the last update we get from the world of phantom debt.
Emma: If you have received calls about debt that you do not owe, you can call 1-877-FTC-HELP, or go to ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
Emma: Crime Show is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Emma Courtland. Our producers are Jerome Campbell, Cat Schuknecht and Jade Abdul-Malik. Our senior producer is Mitch Hansen. Editing by Devon Taylor. Production oversight by Collin Campbell. Research by Julie Carli. Additional production help from Anya Schultz and Nicole Pasulka.
Emma: Theme song by So Wylie. Mixing and sound design by Daniel Ramirez. Original music by So Wylie and Dara Hirsch. Special thanks to Marcus Bagala, Nathan Singhapok, Catherine Anderson, Alex Blumberg and Rachel Strom. And extra special thanks to Tal Levitas for sending me that Bloomberg story about Andrew. And to Zeke Faux for writing it.