Woman distressed after bank debt investigator made evening call to her home

Permanent TSB says retired garda’s job was to find location of people

Michelle Fowler at home in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Michelle Fowler at home in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

A separated mother of two has spoken of her distress after a man acting on behalf of Permanent TSB called to her home shortly before 9pm on a Friday night seeking information about her.

Michelle Fowler (39), a special needs assistant who lives in Co Wexford, has been separated for more than five years and has two sons, aged 15 and 12.

She left the family home in 2012 and a substantial mortgage and arrears remain attached to it.

Ms Fowler told The Irish Times she was recently alone in her rented home when she heard banging on her sittingroom window. She thought it was a friend but when she opened the front door she found “a tall man with white hair in a tracksuit, probably in his 50s” standing outside.

She said the man asked for her name and in response she asked him who he was and sought identification.

“He flashed an identification card at me but wouldn’t let me hold it to look at it,” she said. “He refused to give me his name, and proceeded to ask me questions. He asked if the house I’m currently in is mine or rented.

“I asked again for his name and proper identification. He refused to give his name but said his job was to find out the location of people who owe money to PTSB.”

‘Refused to leave’

Ms Fowler said she tried to close the door but he “put his hand on the front door and pushed it in so that I couldn’t close it. He refused to leave and refused to let me close the door”.

She told him her finances were being handled by the Phoenix Project, a Portlaoise-based charity helping people in mortgage distress.

“He said he wanted answers to questions. Because this man would not leave, and because I was terrified, I answered the questions.”

She told him she was renting the house and that she had not lived in the mortgaged property since October 2012.

Ms Fowler said she asked the man not to call to her house again and said if PTSB wanted any information they could deal with the Phoenix Project.

“His answer was to tell me that the bank might take my car to help pay off the money owed. He then took his foot out of the door and left.”

She said she suffered from anxiety as a result of the incident.

“I will now have to go back to my doctor for anxiety medication. My whole body is sore from stress, my muscles are cramped and I have palpitations, all symptoms of anxiety.”

William Prior of the Phoenix Project expressed concern at how the woman had been approached.

“To make contact with a woman on her own in her home in this manner at this time on a Friday evening is shocking,” he said. “There were no support services open at that hour and if she had come to harm after this visit, who would have taken responsibility.”

Capacity

John O’Donohoe, a solicitor who volunteers with the Phoenix Project and has represented Ms Fowler in court, noted that his client lacked the capacity to repay any residual debt owed to PTSB due to her situation.

“What is the point of calling to her house on a Friday night? She has no money. Either the debt is written off or she files for bankruptcy. PTSB cannot get any money if it is not there, so what they are doing seems pointless and needlessly upsetting.”

In a statement Permanent TSB said it took “allegations like this seriously” and that having “investigated this matter fully with our legal advisers and with the trace company which is the company which employs the agent who was engaged to trace the customer in question . . . we believe that these allegations are without foundation”.

The spokesman said the Consumer Credit Act allows “visits and telephone calls” and stipulates that personal visits cannot be made between 9pm and 9am.

“Therefore 9am-9pm visits are permitted,” he said.

He said the agent who visited Ms Fowler was “a retired garda sergeant who received an Exemplary Service Record Certification upon retirement from the force and who has an unblemished record”.

He said the agent’s only job was “to trace the customer – nothing more. In such situations neither the trace company nor the individual agent who carries out the trace is informed for what purpose the trace is being made.

“Neither the trace company nor the agent are given any information about the personal history of the customer they have been asked to trace. Therefore, the claim that the agent said he was tracing people who owed money to the bank does not make sense.”

The spokesman said the agent in question had described his encounter with the customer as “brief, very straightforward and uneventful”.

“The customer was polite and courteous and co-operative in confirming her identity and her current address,” he said.

This article was amended on Friday 31st August, 2018 as an earlier version incorrectly stated Ms Fowler’s family home was sold leaving a substantial residual debt. This has now been corrected.