by Bruce Strom
This past week John Oliver shone a spotlight on the shadier side of the debt collection industry. He demonstrated how easy it is to purchase old debt. For $60,000 he bought $15M in unpaid medical debt which provided names, social security numbers and addresses to pursue collection. Rather than collect, John Oliver forgave the money making it the largest give-away in television history.
The purposeful stunt painfully demonstrated the reality of the debt industry in America. Almost as soon as debt is incurred it is sold for collection. The company selling takes a tax right off AND collects money on the sale of the debt. The next collector often does the same and debt can change hands many times without any paperwork. While a double benefit to the creditor this is often a double loss to the debtor who may owe taxes and still have the original debt plus interest, penalties and fees floating around in the collection world. While that double dipping is unlawful it happens frequently.
We routinely encounter these bully debt collectors. They call and make numerous threats. Some will unlawfully threaten imprisonment or call employers threatening jobs. Fear is their weapon and the consequences are dire.
I’ll call him Rick. He came to me scared and embarrassed. He was 83 years old and was trying to help his adult disabled daughter. She was getting calls from a debt bully and was confused. Rick didn’t want them harassing his daughter so he paid not knowing whether the debt was owed or not. Then the calls kept coming. He begged me not to tell his wife or other daughter. But could I help? Turns out some of the debt was not Rick’s daughters at all. Some of the other debt was so old it could not legally be collected on. Once the company heard from a lawyer they ran and the harassment stopped but tracking them down to recover funds proved impossible.
Mary had a similar problem. Her story is in Gospel Justice. She was an 80 year old widow sued for a debt she could not remember. She thought that was because she was old. Actually it was because the debt was not hers. A lawyer filed her case along with a hundred others and did not bother to look into the details. Often collectors do this expecting someone not to show up for court and obtaining a judgment which allows them to garnish wages. We’ve had many cases where the person’s first notice is a wage garnishment. Mary simply had the same name as the true debt owner. The collection agency was simply going after old debts, long since dead in the normal course of collection. These collectors are aptly known as Zombie Debt Collectors.
Fortunately Mary and Rick both found help. With the intervention of a lawyer the issues were quickly resolved because the debt collectors prey on the powerless – like bullies. Like most bullies, the moment someone stronger stands up to them, they quickly run away. But thousands of people are victimized every day in America. They are embarrassed and afraid. That should not happen.
We need people to stand up to these bullies. You don’t have to be a lawyer to advocate for Mary or Rick, though we need more lawyers and more gospel justice centers across the country. Just imagine if every church in America had a gospel justice center where people could turn without fear of judgment. A place that would speak up and judge fairly defending the rights of the poor and needy. Prov. 31:9. What better way to be relevant in our communities than to love our neighbors caught in these unjust systems?
My prayer is that we will have the courage to step out of our busy blindness or judgment and stop to serve neighbors in need. All the barriers to service have been removed. All it takes is the courage of the Samaritan to reach out and contact us today. We have grants and specific steps to equip you to do justice in your neighborhood. Together let’s be Good Samaritans as we enter into the brokenness of this world and
Go and Do Likewise.