Never Assume a Debt Collector Has the Right to Collect Money from You

There is an article in today’s New York Times Magazine, “Paper Boys–Inside the Dark World of Debt Collections,” which underscores why a consumer should never, ever just assume that someone attempting to collect a debt from them is entitled to do so, even if they purport to have information about the debt.

Excerpts from the article:

“As long as paper continues to be stolen, double-sold or otherwise exchanged without accurate supporting information — like statements or copies of the original signed contracts — consumers will be exploited and collectors like Siegel and Wilson will have to fend for themselves.”

“As he soon discovered, after creditors sell off unpaid debts, those debts enter a financial netherworld where strange things can happen. A gamut of players — including debt buyers, collectors, brokers, street hustlers and criminals — all work together, and against one another, to recoup every penny on every dollar. In this often-lawless marketplace, large portfolios of debt — usually in the form of spreadsheets holding debtors’ names, contact information and balances — are bought, sold and sometimes simply stolen.”

“Later, he also became a debt broker or dealer, a type of role he knew quite well: “I used to buy pounds of weed, all right, and then break it down and sell ounces to the other guys, who were then breaking it down and selling dime bags on the corner, right? Well, that’s what [I’m] doing in debt.” …“I buy old crap,” Wilson said. “I’m the King of Crap.”

“It was part of a much larger package of roughly $50 million worth of debt, which he bought for just 12 basis points — or one-twelfth of a penny on the dollar. It had been bad paper, Owens said, and he’d gotten burned on the deal. After the purchase, Owens discovered that another agency was collecting on the same paper and, what’s more, that some of the dates on the debts had been manipulated so that the paper appeared newer than it actually was. As Owens saw it, when buying from debt brokers, this was all part of the risk you faced. He concluded: “It is just data you are purchasing.”

“The [Consumer Financial Protection] bureau vowed to police the nation’s largest 175 agencies, but one recent projection on the industry estimates that there will be 8,501 debt-collection firms in 2015 in the United States. And the companies engaging in the most grievous behavior — like falsely threatening lawsuits or collecting on bad paper — tend to be the smaller operators. It inevitably falls upon the state attorneys general to go after them, which means depending on overburdened officials like Karen Davis.”

Note that the mere fact that a debt collector has information about you or about the debt does not establish that it in fact has any right to collect.