A San Diego-based debt collector has agreed to pay $675,000 in civil penalties and give up $18 million won in court fights against 4,500 consumers, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Friday.

The settlement stems from an investigation by the attorney general's office, which concluded that Encore Capital Group — a major debt buyer in New York — had unfairly targeted consumers to collect unpaid bills.

Encore filed claims against consumers even though the state's statute of limitations had expired, Schneiderman said in a press release. The claims were part of a broader attempt to obtain uncontested judgments, the release said.

New York's deadline for most debt collection cases is six years. For claims that involve a creditor in a state other than New York, the shorter of the two states' statutes of limitations applies.

"New York has laws in place to ensure no one can prey on consumers, and debt collectors are required to follow those rules," Schneiderman said in the release. "Today's settlement ensures that thousands of New Yorkers will see millions in relief from debts that were not enforceable in the first place."

Schneiderman also found in his investigation that Encore employees were expediting consumer lawsuits by signing hundreds of affidavits without proper review — a tactic known as robo-signing.

As part of the settlement, Encore agreed to reform its processes to ensure that all sworn statements receive a proper review. The firm also agreed to provide certain disclosures regarding the age of the debt and the applicable state collections laws.

Debt collectors have been in the crosshairs of state and federal regulators. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month approved tougher rules for debt collection cases, extending the period of time consumers may challenge collection attempts.

Meanwhile, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau plans to release new rules for debt collectors in April.

Targeting debt collectors has been a priority for Schneiderman in the past year. The attorney general in August reached a $10,000 settlement with the New York-based firm Forster & Garbus, regarding its collection of payday loans.

Schneiderman cracked down on two debt collectors in May, ordering Portfolio Recovery Associates in Norfolk, Va., and Sherman Financial in New York to drop judgments worth an estimated $16 million.

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