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Once burned, this Marine veteran came home to fight fake debt collectors

Ray Bueno, 28, speaks about how as a former Marine, he returned from two combat tours to give financial advice on a popular YouTube channel in Miami Gardens on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017.
Ray Bueno, 28, speaks about how as a former Marine, he returned from two combat tours to give financial advice on a popular YouTube channel in Miami Gardens on Monday, Aug. 7, 2017. For The Miami Herald

After he came back from the service in 2013, Marine Corps. veteran Ray Bueno paid roughly $3,850 over 11 months to a fake debt collection company.

The Miami veteran thought working with the company would improve his credit score and reduce his debt, but over time he discovered his credit score and debt were unchanged, despite making monthly $350 payments.

The costly mistake led him to create a YouTube channel called “Keeping It Real With Credit,” on which he offers financial advice.

Touching on topics ranging from building credit to reducing student-loan debt, in about one year he’s gained nearly 47,000 subscribers. One video, “Boost Your Credit Score in 30 Days With Your Credit Cards | Part 2,” has had nearly 209,000 views.

“At the end of the day I truly hope that I give the right message out there,” Bueno, 28, told the Miami Herald. “People shouldn’t be learning this the hard way.”

Back when he was learning about the fake collection company, several factors led him to pursue legal action.

For example, he learned the company wasn’t listed on his credit report. So, he asked for debt validation — which would certify the company as the right party to pay — but in return, he was emailed an unconvincing Photoshopped document.

Then, the debt collectors began leaving threatening voicemails.

The last straw came when Bueno secretly set up a group call with two collectors from the company.

According to the collectors, one supposedly was in Orlando, the other at their headquarters in Chicago. Evidently, they worked in the same office.

“I call them both, and I hear the other phone ringing in the background,” recalled Bueno, describing what he heard next: “When they started talking, they [were] like ‘Oh! You’re calling me!’ and started laughing. That’s when I decided I needed to do something about it.”

According to the Florida Office of Financial Regulation, there were 1,527 active consumer collection agencies licensed during the 2013-14 fiscal year — 21 more agencies than the previous year. Since then, there has been a steady decline in the number of recorded active collection agencies.

Bueno hired a consumer attorney and met with state regulators, who confirmed the collection company was unlicensed in Florida and could not legally collect debts.

Daniel Tam, Bueno’s attorney, then got an investigator, who tracked down the company’s registered owner to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina — which coincidentally, is about an hour’s drive from where Bueno went to Marine boot camp.

Tam remarked that the case “took more leg work than usual.”

Typically, regular collection lawsuits involve legitimate collection agencies that have infringed on consumer rights.

This company, however, completely fabricated its ability to collect debts. And it did so from another state, making the case a bit tougher to investigate, Tam said.

For those who think they may be in a similar situation to Ray’s, Tam’s advice: “Consult with a lawyer immediately. Find a consumer lawyer in your area, run [your] scenario by them to see if there’s a violation. Too many people allow this harassment to continue.”

In the end, Bueno got the company’s owner to pay him back in full, but the fight didn’t stop there.

“This situation that happened to me could very well happen to the next veteran. It’s a problem for everybody,” Bueno said. “And for some reason … this information is not promoted anywhere at all whatsoever. So somebody has to do it.”

Although his YouTube video series started with one “small rant,” Bueno has since partnered with businesses to produce more.

Featuring two lawyers, a senior loan officer, and an auto lease company representative, Bueno’s guests often tie in to the videos’ topics.

This is done to provide information directly from a reputable source. The information is accurate and not single-sided, he said.

“I don’t claim to know everything,” Bueno said. “I do a lot of research to make sure that my points are valid. But at the end of the day, I hope that with my videos, people get curious enough to click on the next one, or start Google searching [and] doing their own research.”

Since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Bueno graduated in May with an advertising degree from University of Miami’s School of Communications.

Bueno is now interning at Univision Communications, strengthening his multimedia and production skills.

He’s also partnering with Buildworth Strategies, a company where he used to work, to spread financial advice. BWS founder Justo Villalobos has appeared on several of Bueno’s videos, including a live-streamed Q&A.

Bueno hopes the channel will prevent future cases like his, among veterans and civilians alike.

He wants to use his degree and internship to further develop the channel, and make videos “till I run out of information.”

He doesn’t think that’s likely to happen, though.

“I’m making YouTube videos as sort of a vendetta or payback to them,” Bueno said. “I know that I’m not the only one this is happening to, so that’s the story.”