Illustration by Sam Woolley

If you walk into any of Rent-A-Center’s 2,600 locations across the country, you can walk out with a laptop, a smartphone, or a couch under a high-interest payment plan. The Rent-A-Center business model allows people with low or no credit some access to the basic necessities of modern life, even if they wind up paying three times more for the product in the end. But newly released complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) paint a sometimes disturbing picture of how Rent-A-Center tries to collect debts if you miss a payment.

Advertisement

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FTC for consumer complaints filed against Rent-A-Center in the past year. The complaints are filled with some particularly shocking horror stories about the company. Some of the complaints even detail the terrifying ways in which Rent-A-Center employees will harass friends, family, neighbors, and even the coworkers of people who’ve done business with Rent-A-Center after a payment is missed.

The stories are pretty heartbreaking, with some people explaining that even though they know that Rent-A-Center is a rip-off, it’s the only way they have to give a present to their kids for holidays. One person in Indiana explained that, “we purchased a game system that was triple the price in the stores, but with no credit that’s how our kids got Christmas.” That same person explained that after a dispute about how much was really owed on some mobile phones, Rent-a-Center called their house “and [told] our kids we are going to jail if we don’t pay.”

Advertisement

In one of the craziest complaints, a Rent-A-Center debt collector in Georgia even called the police saying that an intruder had broken into the house of a customer who was late in making a payment. The police allegedly entered the house, guns drawn, waking up the entire family and terrifying the kids. When the customer later asked the debt collector why he’d done it, the man from Rent-a-Center insisted that he thought he saw someone break into the house.

I reached out to Rent-A-Center to ask about how they collect on debts. I read just a few of the complaints over the phone to the PR person there and the company was emphatic that these stories were not representative of how they do business.

“Our mission is to improve the quality of life for our customers and a lot of the things you described are absolutely against our policies,” said Sonia Holland, Director of Communications at Rent-A-Center. “We hold [our] people accountable. All the stuff you just said, like threatening to put them in jail, is against policy.”

Sponsored

Ms. Holland was quick to note that by law Rent-A-Center isn’t subject to the Fair Debt Collections Act, since the company is considered a first party credit lender. But she insisted that it was company policy to follow the same norms of the Fair Debt Collections Act, which prohibits things like contacting someone at odd hours of the day and using abusive language to harass or intimidate someone who owes money.

“By law we’re not required to comply, but we voluntarily do,” she told me.

Advertisement

Advertisement

A number of the complaints describe Rent-A-Center employees calling customers at work, and sometimes even showing up there. Ms. Holland told me that once a customer says that they don’t want to be contacted at work, it’s Rent-A-Center policy to stop contacting them there. I asked whether Rent-A-Center employees are allowed to visit people at their place of business.

“I’ll have to double check. I know you can’t contact them at work once they’ve said it’s discouraged. But I can’t remember that,” Holland said.

In a follow-up email Holland stated that Rent-A-Center employees are allowed to contact customers at work, “only if an account is excessively past due and as a last resort” and that they “must strictly abide by RAC’s policy of not revealing account information to third parties.”

Advertisement

Some of the complaints filed with the FTC do allege that not only were many people contacted at work after Rent-A-Center employees were told to stop, but that private information was left with coworkers about their debts.

“Any complaint we take very seriously. To give you context, we have 2,600 stores, so if you have one complaint per store per year that’d be 2,600 complaints,” she told me. The FTC released 421 complaints to Gizmodo, spanning the course of one year, though it should be noted that these are only the complaints on file with a single federal agency.

“Our customers are a little bit different than retail consumers,” Holland said, explaining that customers interact with Rent-A-Center employees on a regular basis to keep their rental contracts current. “We interact between 40 and 60 million times per year. [These complaints are] a very small fraction of the millions of customers we serve at any time.”

Advertisement

Advertisement

Toward the end of our call I asked if Rent-A-Center could send me its policies on interacting with customers, but Ms. Holland declined.

“We wouldn’t just give out our policies because that’s just giving out too much information.... proprietary...” she said, though she did promise to send me an overview of those policies later in the day, which explained many of the things that she had already told me.

A sample of the complaints filed with the FTC from the past year appear below, with some minor spelling and formatting errors corrected for readability. As usual with FTC complaints, these were anonymized before they were provided to Gizmodo. The emphasis below is mine.

Advertisement

If you’ve had any experience with Rent-A-Center as a customer or employee, positive or negative, we’d love to hear about it in the comments. Or you can send an email to novak@gizmodo.com and tell me your story.


Michigan, October 2015

Rent-A-Center had been making persistent and harassing phone calls to myself and my husband and was insulting, threatening, and degrading us with each call. Employees of the company had also made constant visits to my home, threatening myself and my husband as well as scaring my children. A cease-and-desist letter was sent to the company demanding that they stop these actions, for which they complied with for less than a week. However, the persistent phone calls to myself and my family have begun again.

Virginia, October 2015

What Happened: First they gave me wrong product by saying it was the same product I picked but it was brand new still in the box (I did not know until I was home to open it, took it back but they would not give another one as well as did not honor the lower weekly price that was posted on the box) then called friends and family. Left voicemails on friend’s phone threatening arrest for theft then went and got a warrant in debt (lawsuit) for being less than a month behind. Sent letters with lies in them being only 5 days behind, they said I was 15 days behind in the letter. This is not my first time dealing with them and I have paid off all other items I ever got. My phone got disconnected but when it was on and they called I answered. They even used spoof apps to mask their number when calling my friend’s phone. It hasn’t even been a long time that I had the product.

Utah, October 2015

I receive anywhere from 2 to six phone calls per day and 1 to 2 people knocking on my door six days a week from Rent-A-Center even when my payments are not late or past due. Even my neighbors have complained about them yelling through the door when no one is home.

Kansas, December 2015

Rent-A-Center has come to my place of employment called my job twice a day everyday. When Rent-A-Center show up at my place of employment I informed the gentleman I was recording our conversation and agreed to it. I then proceeded to tell him that I am not allowed to have personal calls or personal visits at my job, he said ok and as he was leaving he asked if my home address was a good address to send legal paperwork. That was on or about December the 4th. Today December 15 I have yet to receive any legal paperwork and they called me at my place of employment at around 10:42 am. They contact my cell phone from different numbers all day, come to my home 2 to 3 times a day, latest being 7:40 pm.

Iowa, December 2015

I have a TV through Rent-A-Center that is past due, this was their first time coming to my home and the employee - Nick- was banging on my door and wasn’t even giving me time to answer and began calling me derogatory names and threatening to call the police and say it smelled like marijuana so I’d open the door and demanded that I open the fucking door now and that he wasn’t leaving and repeatedly threatened to call the police on me. He refused to leave after me asking several times, I had witnesses here as well. I called the store and asked that they make him leave and after telling the manager I do not want them back here because they are jeopardizing where I live by doing that he started yelling and saying he wishes I would call the police. They have repeatedly called my phone yelling at me and threatening to come back and do it again if they don’t get their property back so I contacted the district manager and he said if I want it to stop I need to return the property and that he didn’t believe me.

Louisiana, December 2015

I rented a TV and PlayStation from Rent-A-Center and I get one day late on a payment they call me 5-6 times on my house phone starting at 8 am, continue throughout the day then call my cell from other numbers in their office. Different people call, sometimes two or three different people, they leave messages threatening to take my property back they tell me that I need to call them right away regarding a business matter when I do answer they question me on why I haven’t paid in the rudest voice. And it starts when I’m not even 24 hours behind on a payment and it continues day after day after day.

Arizona, January 2016

After leasing from Rent-A-Center and getting behind on payments, Rent-A-Center has called my landlord and disclosed to him my personal business including them pursuing legal action. To my knowledge, that is a violation. Would you please help me and or educate me so I am clear on what is ok?

California, January 2016

I rented a 50" TV from Rent-A-Center in May 2015, I had a weekly payment plan and paid my bill, during July and August 2015 the collection representatives would call me three or more times a day, I often work out of town and would pay upon returning home. The harassment continued to the point of coming to my home late at night, to my place of employment, harassing phone calls more than one a day, during work after work and on weekends outside the collection laws.

On 1/12/2016 a representative from Rent-A-Center came to my place of employment and left a collection letter with a coworker [name redacted]. The letter exposed my personal information and account information indicating that I had to make a payment. It was not concealed in an envelope. 1/08/2016 I was returning home from a company function at approximately 9:40pm Friday evening with my wife and two representatives, a male and female, demanding payment. I explained they were not to come to my home so late in the evening and felt harassed and embarrassed. They called me three or more times a day, during work, after work and late at night. I had made several payments that were not recorded and disputing their collection actions and my balance on my account I have requested on multiple occasions a copy of my pay history and balance and receipts and was never given one. They constantly call and harass daily. They have violated my personal information, refused to give balance information.

I have spoken to a district manager who has not resolved the matter of the harassing and aggressive collection methods, nor given me an adequate answer as to why we don’t receive receipts or balances. A coworker indicated the prior collection representatives who came to my home, were terminated, and they were the ones I gave payments to and don’t know why my balance does not reflect dollars and payments made to this company.

Ohio, January 2016

I have an account with Rent-A-Center for a laptop computer. I caught the sales person short changing my account. He entered in a smaller amount than what I paid and I assume he was going to pocket the difference. I reported him to the district Manger and refused to give my credit card information to the EastGate store. I was transferred to the Amelia store and they began harassing me after one missed payment. I want a payment history of what I have paid and what I owe before I will make another payment. I believe they have cheated me on payments. They have threatened to come to my house and take a computer I have paid over $800 for. They are harassing myself and my parents daily. Please make them stop and give me a print out of my payments so I can make sure they match.

Colorado, January 2016

Rent-A-Center kept calling me and leaving voicemails everyday... sometimes twice a day. They than started calling my job, which is NOT ok with me at all. My coworker that answered the phone knew right away is was for a debt. I don’t know how he knew but he did. This concerns me! When I had tried to make arrangements with Rent-a-Center the manager Cory was very rude! Used obscene language to make me feel belittled. Kept cutting me off in the middle of my sentences. Very poor customer service and very rude! I was astounded how rude he was! Rent-A-Center was also contacting my references.... my sister is one of my references and she said Rent-A-Center kept calling her for me... She told them that that was not my phone. Apparently they relied that they were trying to collect a debt and I need to contact them and it was very important that I do... I thought that debt collectors are not able to disclose to third parties that they are collecting a debt?

Texas, January 2016

I paid off a couch on 10/17/2015. I took advantage of the paying it off under the Same as Cash-90 days promo they have. I kept receiving phone calls, and I just ignored them. Then they would call my work, and then my cell over and over. Finally I answered, and asked them why they were still calling. The manager Mike argued with me that it was not paid off, and I informed him that I knew it was paid off. I had my sister call in the last payment, to pay off the total before the lapse date. He argued with me, and I said I wanted to speak to his District Manager. His District Manager Jerry finally called, and told me Mike’s side. I then told him my side, and he said if you take in your sister’s statement. Then that will pay off this account.

On 01/07/2016 my father-in-law was watching [name redacted] at my house, and he heard a knock on the door. He answered the door and it was Rent-A-Center, and two guys. My father-in-law identified himself as [named redacted], [named redacted]‘s Dad. The guys told him, who my father-in-law is not on the account-or a reference, that they were sent there by Mike (the [redacted] manager) to pick up the couch. My father-in-law told them that he would not be letting them in to the house, in which one of them stuck their foot in the door, asking my father-in-law to call me. He told them they needed to leave, and he called me. I told him the situation. He then went outside which they were parked out front. He let them know what was going on, and what I had said. I let my father-in-law know that I was in Houston with my Mom, so I had someone put it in the mail. They proceeded to tell him that they would call the police, because they were there to pick up that couch. My father-in-law told them go right ahead, but you are not coming inside this house.

On 01/08/2016- I was in Houston with my Mom [name redacted]. Charlie called from Rent-A-Center at 9:27 am, and was asking about a payment. I explained to him that the statement was in the mail. I asked him what had happened yesterday, and he said I have no Idea I was off yesterday. Three minutes later, Mike calls asking the same questions. Then arguing with me why I am not able to just bring it by the store. I let him know that I was in Houston with my Mom, and I had someone put it in the mail for me. I asked him what happened yesterday, and he argued with me saying that they were new. That they were too scared to do any of that, but that they were new with the Company. The District Manager calls me, and says that he received the statement and he would pay off the account. I wasn’t happy to hear that [name redacted], was saying he would be asked about me and my payments when he would go make his. I believe there are rules! I know these have been broken for sure, with documented evidence.

California, January 2016

I don’t have an account with these people (Rent-A-Center), they are looking for one of my relatives and they are constantly harassing me to get a message to her. I have asked them to stop calling me over and over again, I have even blocked their numbers and they continue to call from different numbers.

Georgia, January 2016

I have been a customer of Rent-A-Center for many years. I have paid off several contracts with them. I have never had an issue with making arrangements before. However, during the month of December I fell behind on my payments. My daughter [name redacted] was admitted to the hospital for 10 days due to complications of [redacted]. It was during this time I missed several days of work. I telephoned Rent-A-Center and advised them that I would be late making my payment. The agent told me that they would have to have the manager call me back. Well, he never called but all of a sudden I received several calls for agent [name redacted]. He would repeatedly dial my phone number several times a day sometimes back to back at least 7 to 8 times a day. I spoke to him and told him that I would not be able to make a payment until my next payment period. Well, on that day he shows up at my home and calls the police with claims that he saw an intruder enter my home. The police came and came into my home based on what he told them, guns drawn while me and my small children were sleeping upstairs. Needless to say my children were very frightened as was I being startled awake by police with guns. I asked him why he felt the need to do that he then told me that he thought someone had entered my home. I was very disturbed by what he had done by I went ahead and gave him the money as promised for the payment.

Then when the next payment came due I was not able to make the payment because I was still trying to catchup other missed payments like utilities and food. Missing work had been a slippery slope for me and my family. While, I got a call from [named redacted], who again, would call my phone up to 7-8 times a day. He even drove by my home and parked in the drive way and blared the backup alarm on the truck loudly as to annoy me and my neighbors. He did this on several occasions. Then he would knock loudly, banging on my front door and yelling “I need you to come out” almost making sure that me neighbors heard everything. Finally, he made several calls to my references threatening to send me to jail if I did not make a payment. The last and final incident occurred when the store manager (name unknown) showed up at my door while I was not home and told my daughter that he was going to make sure I went to jail. While I fully understand the terms of my contract, I feel that their behavior is very unprofessional and even threatening. They take advantage of the working poor and then use the legal system to harass and demean you when you can’t pay due to unforeseen circumstances.

Maryland, February 2016

Rent-A-Center has made threatening calls to me and my family members, used profanity, tag my car after I’ve told them numerous times not to—threats to visit my job, threats to sit outside my home until I let them in, over 10 calls and voicemails a day.

California, February 2016

[Name redacted] rented a laptop from Rent-A-Center. Because I has used their services three years ago I was put down as his reference. [Name redacted] took the laptop and to my knowledge paid the bill as was arranged. For the past month Rent-A-Center has been calling my cell, my job, my mother, my personal references. They have come to my home which I share with my 68 year old mother asking for the laptop. We have told them that we do not have the laptop have never had the laptop. It is our understanding that [name redacted] has made payments and was late on a payment. I mailed a letter to Rent-A-Center by priority mail which I tracked and they received it February 8 at 2:06. They are still calling. In the letter I asked them to stop calling and coming to my house since we do not have the laptop. To me, my mother and our friends it seems like harassment and we would like for to stop.

Indiana, February 2016

My husband [name redacted] has a huge debt with Rent-A-Center and, on several occasions the store manager [name redacted has threatened to have [name redacted] arrested for his unpaid debt to them they have even threatened to arrest me for not being able to collect a debt off him according to them there is a game console involved in this that was allegedly sold to the Game Stop at Circle Centre mall. I have no clue about that whatsoever and, the repossesser Kerry has accused me of stealing it from them. They have not taken any legal action against me or [name redacted] to prove their story is indeed true.

California, February 2016

I asked the business not to contact me any further with reference to someone else’s debt, for whom I served as a reference and no longer have any contact information. I asked the collections representative to not contact me any more with regards to this debt because the debtor is no longer in my area and I don’t have any way to contact him. The first time, the person said it was ok, and that they would note it, and stop calling. Today Saturday 27th, 2016, I got a call from [name redacted] who told me that they will continue to call me, and that there is nothing I can possibly do to stop them, in fact, he said being rude to them wont help because they love that, and that starting Monday, 03/01/2016 he will make it a point to call me every day. I don’t owe anything to Rent-A-Center, and last I checked the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act allows for one call to rectify or confirm information deemed inaccurate, and forbids harassment. They did tell me that this was regarding collecting on the Debtor, which is also against the law, both of these clauses can be found at: 15 U.S.C. 1692b (2) and (3).

I was plenty polite and cooperative the first time, I told them that I couldn’t find the guy, and I had tried to reach him with no success. I asked not to be called again because I did not have a way to reach him, nor did I believe he would want to let me know how to reach him, and anything else to ask from me becomes harassment. In this case I would also say this is edging on cyber-bullying, because Juan had no right to threaten me and turn my serving as a reference into a personal vendetta of his. As lowly as a debt collector’s job might be, and as little as it may matter to loose such miserly position, acting on a personal way to attack or harass someone is a personal attack, for which the company is liable should they ignore complaints such as this one. I will file a complaint against corporate offices as well and If no satisfactory solution is found, I will be securing legal counsel in the future to see that these actions are scrutinized and audited as needed in order to avoid future harassment and bullying of other unrelated third parties. I seek a formal apology by both the business and the disgruntled agent who threatened me. He should be terminated in my opinion, but if that’s how they like to do business, let the precedent serve as proof in any future negligence cases. The company should implement anger management and better practices training, and employees should be required to pass a background check and consumer information privacy training before they can access any privileged information, such as phone numbers, addresses, and such. I want no further contact from the company after the matter is resolved. Finally, should any harm come to me as a repercussion to this complaint process, both the company and employee should be investigated, because I am a working professional with no enemies or issues with anyone else.

Indiana, April 2016

We have been through Rent-A-Center for the past five years. We have bought a lot of stuff through them. We purchased twin beds they said were brand new and they were not. Three months after having them we complained that you could feel all the springs in them they wouldn’t stand by their word and replace them so we were stuck with crap. Then we purchased a game system that was triple the price in the stores but with no credit, that’s how our kids got christmas. We bought that and a laptop and tablet. They advertise free upgrades but wouldn’t let us upgrade nothing. But the real problem that I’m furious about is we purchased two cell phones for our boys so we could stay in contact when they were away at friends. We had them two days when the SIM cards wouldn’t stay in them they gave the boys loner phones that they wouldn’t switch over the service to without us spending more money we get them back they still don’t work. So they sent them out again for four months—this has went on my kids haven’t got to use their phones but one day out of four months I finally asked for my money back. They’re junk they said we can’t do that we owe $130 left to pay on the game system and I refuse to pay it because they wont reimburse me for the garbage phones. They still have one phone that was still in the shop they said, well we will lock the loner phone at midnight if its not back here and you won’t get your other phone unless you pay for it being fixed. Mind you the phones all together with the four times we put service on them and had to take them right back because they are not fixed has cost me over $500 so that $130 we still owe I’m not paying because they won’t make it right with those garbage phones they sold us. I was hoping you could help resolve this. I can’t afford a lawyer but I will if I have to. They false advertise, they lie about everything, they price gouge and I’m not letting them get away with it. Plus over a year ago they sold me this Benefits Plus package that takes care of stuff even after you own it and they won’t do anything for us at all. They call the house and tell our kids we are going to jail if we don’t pay. I’m fed up with this company please help.

New Jersey, May 2016

Rented five things from rent a center, missed a payment by a few after which they began harassing, threatening and even following me. There appeared to be an attempt to break into my residence... unknown if it was them or not I can’t prove it. Also I asked if there is a print out or log of how much I pay weekly, what percent of my money goes to bringing down price no one could tell me. I am in fear now, they may try to do either break in or threaten my family. I will gladly give merchandise back but this manager at Rent-A-Center [redacted] has me in fear for my family. He stated they have followed me into another state... why?

Texas, June 2016

Made payment arrangements for $144, and when I called to pay they actually took out $203. When I called back and confronted the accounts manager [name redacted] he said he couldn’t put the money back on my card, he took more out of my account than he was authorized to do, it wasn’t even money that was due yet. They call my office 5-8 times a day, and will show up at my office to harass me, after being told several times to not call my office or come by. They say that it is not against the law for them to call my office or come by my office.

Texas, June 2016

They call me constantly while I’m at work after I told them I can’t talk while I’m working. They asked if it would be better for them to text me and I said yes that was two weeks ago and I haven’t received a text yet just numerous phone calls.

Florida, August 2016

Rent-A-Center, with main offices in Plano, TX, called my references and indicated I was behind in our payments to them. The references that were given at the time of opening the payment arrangement were meant, I thought, to verify our identity, etc. I was told by an associate that they can contact our references if we cannot be reached BUT they gave personal information as far as my indebtedness to references. They also contacted said references more than one time. Incidentally, we were ONE week late, I have a new cell phone number and my husband was out of town on business. We did NOT receive anything via mail.

Georgia, August 2016

I am a reference for my son at Rent-A-Center. They constantly call me with ridiculous threats. The last threat was a warrant for my son’s arrest will be served if he doesn’t get payment in by Tuesday, August 23, 2016. The first name of the person who spoke to me was [name redacted]. These harassments are calls to me rather than to my son.