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Debt Collectors Have Figured Out A Way To Seize Your Wages And Savings

People with overdue bills have long complained of harassment from debt collectors, from late
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  Debt Collectors Have Figured Out A Way To Seize Your  Wages And Savings People with overdue bills have long complained of harassment from debt collectors, from late-nightphone calls to frightening in-person visits. Now it appears the industry has found far more troublingstrategy: Filing lawsuits against debtors -- often, consumer advocates say, on the theory that theywon't ever show up to court to defend themselves.The consequences are dire when the debtors don't appear in court. A judge can put a lien onsomeone's home, garnish wages, even freeze bank accounts -- all without a person ever getting achance to fight their case. And at times, collectors file suit in error. Consumers interviewed for thisstory described cases where they were never told they were being brought to court, or were sued fordebts on credit cards they never had. Over the years we've heard from thousands of people who've found themselves at the end of one of these default judgments, said Susan Shin, a senior staff attorney at the New Economy Project, aconsumer advocacy group. And most of the people we talk to haven't received any kind of noticethat they were going to be sued.   Willie Wilson, a 69-year-old retired veteran from Elgin, Texas, lost his late mother's home becausehe never received notice that a debt collector had sued him. Wilson learned when he had the houseappraised in 2009 that a collection agency had filed suit against him earlier that year over an unpaid$2,500 MasterCard bill.Wilson was troubled on two accounts: While normally Wilson would have been served a summonsto appear in court, he said he never got one. And, he said, he never had a MasterCard.But since he had been found liable in court, it was too late. He didn't have the $3,500 he now owed.The law in Texas allows a debt collector to force the sale of a home if it's not someone's primaryhouse. Wilson, who inherited the three-bedroom bungalow from his mother, figured he would sell ithimself first. I really didn't want to sell it, Wilson said. I was gonna fix it up and eventually pass it on to mykids.  As the debt industry has ballooned over the past decade, collectors' lawsuits against consumers haveskyrocketed. A study published last year found there were more than 200,000 cases filed in New York in 2011 alone.  Using litigation to get consumers to pay off old debts has proven a lucrative tool for such firms. Forthe four debt-buying companies that disclose their earnings to the public, income from legalcollections rose from $582 million to more than $1 billion between 2009 and 2012, according to arecent report by the Center for Responsible Lending, a research group that fights predatory lendingpractices.Though there is no national data on how often people who are sued by debt collectors show up tocourt, a Maryland study from 2010 found that collectors often go unchallenged. The study, whichlooked at thousands of such cases, found that fewer than 2 in 10 borrowers who were servedactually responded to their summons.One of the problems with debt collectors' appetite for litigation, consumer advocates and attorneyssay, is that they may not have all the information they need to prove their claims. As debts get olderand are often bought and sold multiple times, crucial information about the borrower gets lost. It's almost like a game of telephone, said Leslie Parrish, who co-authored the recent Center forResponsible Lending report. The risk to the consumer is compounded as the debt moves down thechain. Howard Grodman, a judge in Flagstaff, Arizona, who handles hundreds of credit card debt cases a year, said there are times when collectors will sue without being able to prove the debts they'resuing over are valid. And when the defendant doesn't answer, it's really hard to look into it fully andfairly, he said.Look: According to a 2013 study by the Federal Trade Commission, only 6 percent of all accountsbought by debt collectors contain documentation like account statements and the terms andconditions of credit. Lack of documentation raises concern over whether some debts are valid.(Image credit: Center for Responsible Lending)  But even when collectors come to court with insufficient or inaccurate documentation, consumerlawyers say, overwhelmed judges aren't always able to thoroughly scrutinize the claims. Especially in the big cities, judges don't have that time to read through two or three inches of documents, or even flip through them, said Amy Kleinpeter, Wilson's attorney. Doing so would stopthe court, Kleinpeter said.In Buffalo, New York, Ebony Brown, 44, said she got a letter from the county sheriff in Aprilnotifying her that her wages were going to be garnished. The letter, Brown said, stated that a judgehad issued a default judgment against her in 2006 for a $10,000 Chase credit card debt.Brown said the sheriff's letter was the first she'd heard of the lawsuit. She believes the debt collectormust have gotten the wrong person: She said she's never had a Chase credit card, and that thecollection agency's paperwork had her middle name and the last four digits of her social securitynumber wrong.Last month, Brown sued the collection agency and won. As a result, the judgment against her was vacated.The FTC has said that it receives more consumer complaints about debt collectors and debt buyersthan for any other single industry. Although a federal law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act already outlaws some kinds of abusive and deceptive debt collection practices, further regulationis currently being drafted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a government watchdogagency.Debt collectors say they are performing a valuable public service. If consumers were allowed todefault on payments without repercussion, more would do so, and borrowing costs for everyone elsewould go up, they say.Moreover, they claim, it is sometimes necessary to turn to the courts to collect on outstanding debts,when all other methods of collection have failed. The ability to use the courts is a right that all Americans have, said Mark Schiffman, spokesmanfor ACA International, a trade association for the debt collection industry. But, he added, It's notthe option of first resort because it costs money to litigate these cases.  Jan Stieger, executive director of DBA International, a trade association representing about 350debt-buying companies, said consumer groups may be exaggerating how often court cases result indefault judgments. She also said that it is up to consumers to keep creditors informed if they move. Consumers, as you know, in their contracts are supposed to keep their creditor up to date on whattheir current address is, so that they're reachable, she said.But consumer advocates say it can be difficult for many borrowers to even know who owns theirdebt, or to get in touch with those agencies if they can figure it out. An operator reached by phone atMain Street Acquisition Corp., the debt buyer that owned Wilson's debt, told The Huffington Postthere was no one there authorized to speak to the press. A person reached at the number for Hull & Associates, the Houston-based collection firm hired by Main Street Acquisition Corp. to recoverWilson's debt, told HuffPost the firm no longer exists and was purchased by Couch, Conville & Blitt,a law firm that focuses on debt collection. Couch, Conville & Blitt partner Bradley Chauvin saidfederal law prevented the firm from discussing Wilson's case with the press.
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