Things That Never Go Away

In Sunday’s New York Times, Jake Halpern revisited collection agencies. Not the boilerroommoviecollection agencies you’d normally think of, but the collections agencies that buy old debt and go after it with a vengence, They buy it for pennies on the dollar, use boiler rooms out of movies like … well, Boiler Room, to collect on it, seldom report the payments, resell the debt … as John Oliver showed a few months ago, the cycle never ends.

Halpern points out that President Elect Trump wants to roll back Dodd-Frank. A perhaps unintended consequence of this would be the almost complete unfettering of the collection industry. 

With that in mind, we thought a look back at one of our first blog posts would be in order – because some things never go away.

Last Monday a friend of mine received a phone call on his cell phone from an unidentified Rhode Island number. He went to college in Providence, has friends there, answered.

rattman_paper
Script from a ‘collection’ company a few dozen times removed from the debt.

This is what he got – “Hi, Mr. Loman, this is an attempt to collect a debt, anything – yada, yada, yada … can you confirm the last four digits of your social?”

“No.”

“Is it ‘5555’?”

“Perhaps.”

“Okay, well, I have an account here from Verizon, you owe twelve hundred dollars.”

“I’ve never had a Verizon account.”

“Well, sure, but it could also be from -”

“Could be?”

“From any one of the following companies now part of Verizon …” the guy then read off a very long list of companies, a list that pretty much summed up the telephone industry of the 21st Century.

“No,” my friend answered.

“No? Whattaya mean, no?”

“I don’t owe anything to anyone on that list.”

“Says here you do.”

“Then it’s wrong.”

“Look, Biff, I have it right here and -”

My friend has a law degree and a long history of dealing with total BS, so it finally hit him to ask, “Wait a second, what’s the date on this supposed debt?”

The guy on the phone fumbled around, Biff could hear papers being shuffled, murmurs of other voices from the boiler room, then, “Yeah, got it here, 2003.”

“You’re calling me about a twelve year old debt?”

“Well, no, see, we just received it -”

“Yeah, well, then it sucks to be you, have a nice day, don’t ever call again.”

Continue reading Things That Never Go Away

About My Schoolhouse Rock Facebook Post

IMG_0209Earlier today, I posted an old Schoolhouse Rock video on my Facebook page.  You’ll either recognize it from your childhood or from recently studying for the AP Government test (and why not, it’s that good!), it’s the famous ‘How a Bill Becomes Law.’

I posted it because I spent yesterday at the Connecticut State House for the formal signing of a new law, one that I helped work on in the spring.

ImjustabillIt was the bill signing for a bill that, among many other things, will prevent debt collectors from –literally—whiting out evidence that they present to the court when suing consumers on credit card debt.  Yep, they were routinely whiting out entire sections of information on documents that they didn’t think was relevant—you or I couldn’t get away with that!  And now debt collectors can’t either.

It’s great that this was signed into law, it’s pretty amazing that we had to get a law passed to stop debt collectors from doing something that has always been legally and morally wrong for the rest of us. But, it was really nice to see our little Bill grow up.

2015: The Year in Themes

It’s been quite a year, in court, out of court, blogging, talking, consulting. Since I started putting my thoughts down early in the year a few themes have emerged, themes I’m sure I’ll continue to follow into 2016.

Looking forward to 2016 and many more posts. Happy New Year, and thanks for being a reader.

Cinco de Mayo and Debts (Really)

More history of debt – I think we can all agree that Cinco de Mayo is a pretty fun day. A celebration of great food, drink, festive, upbeat.

IMG_0855What most people don’t know is how the holiday came to be. It’s not, as a lot of North-of-the-Border types believe, Mexican Independence Day. The 5th marks the Battle of Puebla in 1862 between French and Mexican forces in which a rag tag Mexican army of 2,000 routed a French army – and a division of the Foreign Legion – of 8,000.

That’s right, the French and Mexican armies fought a series of battles in the middle of our Civil War that eventually resulted in a French installed government ruling Mexico until 1866.

“Well, great, Sarah, thanks for the history lesson, it’ll probably be worth a drink or two in a bar trivia contest some day, but what does this have to do with debt?”

Everything, actually. Napoleon III’s invasion and eventual take-over of Mexico was, in fact, perhaps the largest repossession action in history.

After the Mexican-American War and a series of revolutions and civil wars, Mexico was mired in debt and was forced to suspend payments on its foreign debt. With the Civil War raging in the United States, Mexico’s European creditors didn’t have to worry about the Monroe Doctrine. The British and Spanish sent naval forces to Vera Cruz to register their displeasure, they quickly negotiated new repayment schedules. The French, however, were not so easily appeased (or maybe the new payment schedules with Spain and Britain left little for the French) and invaded.

Cinco de Mayo was a successful debt defense worth celebrating. It should be noted, however, that while it was a spectacular upset, the victory was fleeting and Mexico was, in effect, repossessed by the French for four very miserable years.

It was the military equivalent of firing off a strongly worded letter to a creditor, filing a complaint with the BBB, very satisfactually slamming the phone down on the subsequent toll free call, then watching the creditor exploit a rare loophole and still repossess your car.

I like to think I can be as ferocious as that rag tag Mexican Army when it comes to consumer debt, but I know I’m a lot more effective in the long run.

Still, I – and I hope my clients – have more reasons that tequila, great food and good company to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. It’s somehow . . . empowering.

Why I’ll Be Cringing During the Republican Debates (… it’s not what you think)

Cassidy-GOP-Debate-group-shot-1200There are three Republican Presidential debates over the next six weeks and they are sure to have a chilling effect on my clients. I’m not referring to the politics, or the issues, I’m talking about Donald Trump’s business background and what are sure to be continuing attacks by one or more of the other candidates.  Specifically, I’m talking about his bankruptcies. To be fair and accurate, his corporate bankruptcies.

In the September 16th debate, Carly Fiorino made this an issue. It was a fair point, of course, but the manner in which she asked Trump about his casinos’ financial problems rubbed me the wrong way.  She was accusatory and made the implication that Trump had used – the verb employed in its most pejorative manner – ‘government programs’ and had played the system. Equally implicit was ‘How could you have done such a lousy, irresponsible job?’

That may be good politics and was probably a fair question. The thing is, I work with people buried under credit card debt or who are facing foreclosure and attacking someone for using the bankruptcy system, and creating spin around it, does not help. These attacks simply serve to add to the stigma and shame that hangs over having debt issues.

It’s well known to lawyers, court officers, judges and anyone who is sees credit card collection matters and foreclosure cases on a regular basis, that the homeowners and consumers involved are slow to respond to court, if they respond at all.  Many people I work with are fighting the shame and embarrassment of having papers served on them at their homes and fear their neighbors, family members, friends and co-workers will find out about their money problems.  Because there’s still a strong Puritan work ethic in the U.S. inertia usually goes hand-in-hand with the perceived stigma of having unpaid debt.

People who start participating in the process late into the game are lined up outside my office door.  Most come heads hung low, sleep-deprived, embarrassed, ashamed, believing they deserve the abuse they sometimes get from collectors or their mortgage servicer.  I spend a lot of time and expend a lot of energy explaining- counseling, really – that, in most cases, they had little to no choice but to fall behind on their bills. You just can’t control certain life events- health, career, market forces, recessions, corporate mergers/bankruptcies/relocations/relevance; divorce; death; children; aging/ailing parents; severe weather; and a hundred other things.

Anything can happen, any time. Mortgages are thirty years long. Something bad will happen to most of us over thirty years that will prevent us from being able to pay our bills on time.  How many things actually last thirty years? The Thirty Years War didn’t last thirty years.  Most marriages certainly do not last thirty years.  Trump’s four bankruptcies occurred over a 25 year period, a time of total upheaval in the casino industry and the real estate market.

The shaming of those who seek out bankruptcy protection or mount a defense in court is unfortunately being reinforced heavily this presidential political cycle.  Bemoaning ‘free stuff’ and drawing dire inferences from another’s business decisions serve only to reinforce the feelings of shame and avoidance that my clients struggle with.

I’m hoping the candidates don’t continue down that road in the upcoming weeks, but I know they will.

Trying to shame a politician is one thing – though I have to believe Mr. Trump is pretty much shame proof.  Shaming someone for participating in a court process that has been a part of our judicial system going back to Colonial America is to shame the millions of Americans who have used the bankruptcy process, or foreclosure mediation, or credit card debt defense, to get a fresh start and subsequently recover financially and start giving back to the economy, is wrong.  It’s anti-Americans, if you will.    (The S on the end of Americans is intended.)

This is important to all of us, no one wants to own a home on a block where your neighbors’ houses are darkened by foreclosure.  That helps no one.

The DaVinci Code, Debt, and A Book Announcement

I’m working on a book – Got Debt? Essays from the Front Lines of America’s Debt Epidemic. I’ll be writing (and talking) a lot more about it over the coming weeks but I’m excited and hope you will be too.

For now, here’s a little bit from the introduction:

films.01If you read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code – or survived through the movie – you may remember the hero, Robert Langdon, talking about the mysterious Knights Templar, driven underground by King Philip IV of France in the early 1300s.

They knew great secrets’ and were persecuted, hunted down, thought wiped out but live on, unnoticed, influencing great events … you know the spiel.

Under Brown’s layers of conspiracy theories is a historical truth that should speak loudly to millions of us today. In reality, the Templars did indeed very much exist. They were fabulously wealthy, the result of certain extracurricular activities during the Crusades.

They were entrenched in France when Philip philippe_le_bel-1bcd9b4ascended the throne. It being France and the Middle Ages, Philip spent the majority of his time fighting the English. When peace broke out with them, he turned his attention to the Flemings.

Wars are, and have always been, expensive. Philip borrowed heavily from the Templars, probably far more than he or the kingdom could ever hope to repay.

He certainly could not maintain his wars or refill his empty coffers while repaying the Templars. For our purposes, think of being short of cash in the middle of February and needing to choose between paying the oil bill or CapitalOne.

Philip faced that same quandary, solved his fiscal quandary on Friday, October 13, 1307 by having the entire order of the Templars simultaneously arrested.End of the Templars, Philip burned his notes to them and…. well, the Templars as well. Then he confiscated all their holdings.
In one fell swoop Philip wiped out his debt and filed his coffers.

Philip burning his I.O.U.s
Philip burning his I.O.U.s

It’s good to be king.

While most of us can only dream of taking care of our debt with such . . . finality . . . it’s important to take a few lessons from this.First, debt, credit, debtors, creditors, collections, and defaults have been around for a very long time. Second, everyone – you, me, kings, queens, dictators, presidents, Founding Fathers – have debt. Lastly, we have options in how we handle that debt – not Philip’s options – but options still, and more than most people are aware they have.