There’s good reason to beware of debt buyers – corporate thugs who purchase debt for pennies on the dollar and then do the collection equivalent of breaking two legs and taking a baseball bat to bare knuckles. Debt buyers suck the life out of people and profit on loss. Making money by debt buying is contrary to American ideals, especially when the commodities are students.
Debt buyers are to student borrowers as winter ticks are to moose.
Winter ticks “attach themselves to a single moose by the tens of thousands. Adult female ticks can expand to the size of a grape and engorge themselves with up to four milliliters of blood,” according to The Boston Globe.
“This is about as disgusting as it gets out there,” Pete Pekins, chairman of the Natural Resources Department at the University of New Hampshire, was quoted saying.
And so it is for student borrowers – first sucked into usurious private loans that were bundled and sold as investments on Wall Street, and then drained of blood by parasitic debt collection tactics. Predatory lending to students makes millions for investors, and predictably, when these loans go into default, new schemes and products are designed to make even more money.
Meet clients of mine: Jane, Sarah and Karin, whose last names I have withheld for their privacy
Jane is a disabled senior citizen who suddenly became the target of debt collection harassment and was sued in Bangor District Court in 2015 on two alleged private student loans from 2004 and 2005 – the proceeds of which she never received. With the help of a volunteer lawyer, Jane got both cases dismissed.
But even though she won her cases, within months she was again pursued by different debt collectors chasing the very same debt that was the subject of the lawsuits she had just defended.
Sarah is a young mother who works and lives in Windham. She and her husband hope to buy their own home soon, but Sarah’s credit has been badly damaged on account of student loan debt she incurred while a student for two semesters at Kennebec Valley Community College.
KVCC cost only about $1,500 per semester, but Sarah was offered two high-interest, high-fee private loans for $10,000 and $6,000, which she accepted and paid down for several years until she fell behind in 2011.
When Sarah was contacted by debt collectors in 2014, she was told the total debt was $28,977, so when shortly thereafter she received an offer to settle for $7,500, Sarah borrowed it from her local credit union to get the pesky and persistent debt collectors off her back.
Less than 10 months later, however, Sarah and her mother, who had co-signed the loans, were sued on the same debt, and because of confusion, questionable service of process techniques and Sarah giving birth, they were defaulted. The debt buyer that brought the lawsuits quickly obtained default judgments against Sarah and her mother in the approximate amount of $30,000 – each.
Karin is an artist in her 80s who lives alone in Hancock County. In 2006, Karin co-signed two $5,000 private student loans for her granddaughter to attend the University of Maine at Machias and then Husson College. Out of the blue, in the fall of 2015 Karin began getting harassed on the phone and by mail, accused of owing thousands of dollars in connection with her granddaughter’s debts.
Karin received so many phone calls she stopped answering the phone and became afraid. To make it stop, Karin borrowed $6,000 from her brother to settle the debts, but after she paid the $6,000 and got a letter stating she had settled, the harassment began again by another debt buyer on the same debts. To this day Karin gets several dozen phone calls every week and is very upset about it.
Debt buyers – who collect debts they do not legally own and who use the Maine court system as a tool to reap money they are not owed – should be stopped. In the case of Sarah and her mother, judgments totaling over $60,000 were issued on an original debt amount of $16,000 that had been paid down over the years and then settled with a lump sum payment of $7,500 on top.
It’s bad enough that Sarah and her mother now allegedly owe over $75,000, plus interest, on the paltry underlying principal balance. What’s worse is that nothing will stop another debt buyer from pursuing them in the future unless debt buyers are held accountable, which is what legislation pending before the Maine Legislature attempts to do.
L.D. 1199 and L.D. 1242, each of which had a public hearing last week before the Insurance and Financial Services Committee, may need to be tweaked to address some legitimate business concerns, but any step in the direction of fairness, justice and due process is one worth taking.
There’s not much we can do to eradicate ticks, but their numbers are reduced substantially in a drought. Bloodsucking parasites like moisture, apparently. We can, however, as a civilized society put the heat on unscrupulous debt buyers and dry those suckers up.
Caveat emptor! Let the debt buyers beware.
Cynthia Dill is a civil rights lawyer and former state senator. She can be contacted at: