Credit card debt collection may achieve the dubious distinction of making mortgage servicers look good.
The New York Times has been keeping a bit of a watch on this area, and reported earlier that credit card debt collection was a heavy user of robosigned affidavits. A new story recounts how credit card companies frequently file erroneous lawsuits, sometimes saying a customer owes money when they’ve paid off the balance (sound familiar?) but more often, the consumer disputes the accuracy of the balance. And unlike foreclosure-land, where even after the revelation of widespread and varied mortgage abuses, most judges are pro-bank, in the credit card realm, the conduct of lenders is so bad that experienced judges are skeptical of them. From the article:
As they work through a glut of bad loans, companies like American Express, Citigroup and Discover Financial are going to court to recoup their money. But many of the lawsuits rely on erroneous documents, incomplete records and generic testimony from witnesses, according to judges who oversee the cases.
Lenders, the judges said, are churning out lawsuits without regard for accuracy, and improperly collecting debts from consumers. The concerns echo a recent abuse in the foreclosure system, a practice known as robo-signing in which banks produced similar documents for different homeowners and did not review them.
“I would say that roughly 90 percent of the credit card lawsuits are flawed and can’t prove the person owes the debt,” said Noach Dear, a state civil court judge in Brooklyn, who said he presides over as many as 100 such cases a day….
The problem, according to judges, is that credit card companies are not always following the proper legal procedures, even when they have the right to collect money. Certain cases hinge on mass-produced documents because the lenders do not provide proof of the outstanding debts, like the original contract or payment history.
At times, lawsuits include falsified credit card statements, produced years after borrowers supposedly fell behind on their bills.
But the big reason that the credit card companies can ride roughshod over the law is that so few consumers contest these cases. The article reports that 95% go uncontested, meaning the lender will win a default judgment and can then garnish wages or bank account balances.
And if you think it’s bad with the credit card companies, it’s even worse with the bottom feeders. A colleague has a sister who lives in Texas, where the statute of limitations on unpaid debts is four years. Apparently a hedge fund is backing a company that buys bad debts from credit card companies, debt they’ve already written off, shortly before the statue of limitations is about to expire, for pennies on the dollar. They then file suit. They don’t even plan to spend any money fighting, they just intent to win default judgments. So if you hire a lawyer and merely file an answer, you win. But a remarkably high percentage of people fail to do that.
And for the credit card companies, the critics can substantiate their doubts about the accuracy of documentation. For instance:
In 2010, Discover sued Taryn Gregory for more than $7,000 in credit card debt. Ms. Gregory, of Commerce, Ga., had fallen behind on her bills, but said she had accumulated only $4,000 in debt.
After the suit was filed, Ms. Gregory, a 41-year-old child care assistant, asked Discover for proof of the balance. The resulting documents, which were reviewed by The New York Times, have inconsistencies. One statement, for example, says it was produced in 2004, but advertisements on the bottom of the document bear a 2010 date.
We’ve gone back over 300 years, to the ugly time before the 1677 Statute of Frauds. And the worse is too few people seem to appreciate how destructive that is not just to commerce, but to faith in the authority structure.