Debt Collectors: Who Owns Your Debt?
Maria wasn’t even that interested in the pearl earrings that nearly ruined her life. But the saleswoman at the department store was insistent: She would be happy to hold on to the earrings, in case Maria changed her mind. All she had to do was provide the clerk with her store-branded credit card number. Why not, she figured. (The earrings were on sale.) After the clerk returned her card, Maria says, “I forgot about it.”
Maria didn’t use her card often, at the department store or anywhere else in her Texas town, and she never used it online. (We’ve changed the names and some identifying details of interviewees, including Maria, throughout this story, due to the sensitive nature of debt.)“When I buy something, I usually return it, because I feel guilty,” she tells me over the phone. So when monthly bills of around $100 began arriving, she paid them off quickly, figuring she had fallen a bit behind. But when the bills didn’t stop—and kept getting bigger—she grew alarmed. For months, Maria discovered, someone had used her account to buy jewelry, sportswear, handbags, lingerie—dozens of transactions that weren’t hers. “I don’t buy fancy underwear, believe me,” she says, laughing.
She called the store to complain, but couldn’t remember the clerk’s name, and in any event, they told her she had waited too long to file a fraud claim. In the meantime, as her balance accumulated interest and late fees, Maria’s minimum payments ballooned to the point where she, a retired barber in her late 60s, could no longer afford to make them.
A few months later, the debt collection phone calls started—not from the store, but from a company with an anodyne-sounding name she didn’t recognize. She explained to these new people that her identity had been stolen, and asked them to stop calling. “They wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she tells me. “They didn’t care.” When Maria learned to recognize and ignore the company’s phone numbers, she says that she noticed that it began masking its caller ID.
These calls continued, sometimes multiple times a day, for a year and a half. “It was a complete nightmare, because every day I knew something was going to happen,” Maria says. “It scared me very much.” Unable to afford a lawyer, she began to wonder if the collector had the power to put her in jail. One day, when she looked outside to see a woman in a car taking pictures, she feared it had decided to put a lien on her house.
Today, she acknowledges the photographer could have been anyone—a real estate agent, maybe, scouting for neighborhood comps. “But when you’re my age, and you’re ignorant, all these paranoid things come to mind,” Maria says. “What are they going to do to me?”
Maria is not alone. More than 70 million Americans have at least some debt in collections, according to a 2018 Urban Institute analysis. A survey conducted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated that one in three Americans with a credit record had been contacted about a debt at least once in the preceding twelve-month period.
Many of these collectors are not the original creditors, who are required by law to “charge off” most debt—to designate it, for tax purposes, as unlikely to be repaid—after a couple of months. Nor are they debt collectors contracted to recover on the creditor’s behalf. Instead, they are debt buyers, who pay pennies on the dollar for the unpaid accounts of phone companies and gyms and hospitals, and specialize in the business of hounding people to pay them the full amount. Debt-buying accounts for about one-third of the debt collection industry’s $11.5 billion in annual revenue. In other words, if you have debt more than a couple months old, there’s a decent chance you don’t actually know who owns it.
Source : Jay Willis Link