This story was updated at 1 p.m. on Tues. Dec. 14, 2010
Patrice Perry's dispute with Capital One had been escalating. Someone called her family and her coworkers, trying to get her to pay. She hired an attorney, but the credit card company kept sending bills.
And then, the big blow.
"Please send your payment of $286,651,237 in the enclosed envelope," read the statement dated August 2009.
What's in your wallet, indeed.
Perry, a hotel clerk, reacted with shock and panic, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Common Pleas Court.
"Essentially, the company told my client that if you don't do what we say, we're going to terrorize you economically," said Perry's attorney, Craig Kimmel. "It's certainly not a laughing matter when a creditor threatens to sue."
Capital One, based in McLean Va., did not respond Friday to several calls and e-mails requesting comment. In an email sent on Saturday, a spokeswoman said as a matter of policy, the company could not discuss the details of a pending legal matters.
"However, there are rare occasions when human error has led to inaccuracies in a customer billing letter," said Tatiana Stead, of Capital One. "This is clearly one of those instances."
"We understand and sincerly regret the confusion that receiving an invoice of this size must have caused," Stead said in a statement. "We are working to resolve this issue."
The fuss began in May 2009 when the credit card company, known for its commercials featuring Vikings and Visigoths, sent Perry a letter seeking $3,845 to pay off $4,807 on her account.
Perry's former lawyer sent the company a letter instructing it to direct all correspondence to him, the suit states. But Perry said Capital One persisted. Employees began calling her at home, calling her friends, calling her family, according to the suit.
In July 2009, Perry received a letter seeking $3,579 on an account of $4,695. The next month, another letter arrived, demanding $4,820.
Then on Aug. 25, 2009, the nine-figure bill showed up in her mailbox: "You have not paid this amount as we agreed," according to the bill. It threatened to destroy her credit history if the amount was not paid off immediately.
Kimmel said the $286 million figure was no random mistake.
The suit claims Capital One used "terroristic debt collection methods" that violated state debt collection laws and used unfair or deceptive acts or practices to create confusion and misunderstanding.
"We are seeking the very amount of money they say she owes as actual damages," Kimmel said. "So, we want $286 million. I'm as serious as they were when they sent that letter."
Kimmel said credit card companies too often think they are immune from cardholders they've put under the gun. He said he hoped the suit sent a warning to Capital One.
"Maybe some of those problems will get addressed," Kimmel said. "I'm just trying to get it to the attention of those who would consider this outrageous."
Perry, he said, has not received any more letters from Capital One.
"Maybe now they believe that silence is better," he said.