Every year, several hundred thousand people across the United States are sued by companies they have never done business with and may never have heard of. These firms are called debt buyers and although they have never loaned anyone a penny, millions of Americans owe them money. Debt buyers purchase vast portfolios of bad debts—mostly delinquent credit cards—from lenders who have written them off as a loss. They pay just pennies on the dollar but can go after alleged debtors for the full face value of every debt plus interest at rates that routinely exceed 25 percent.
Debt buyers also rely on tax-funded state institutions—namely the court system—to secure much of their income. Leading debt buyers rank among the heaviest individual users of state court systems across the US, and various legal actions and research, including that of Human Rights Watch, have identified repeated patterns of error and lack of legal compliance in their lawsuits. These problems are often discovered long after the debt buyers have already won court judgments against alleged debtors, a situation that arises because of the inability of alleged debtors to mount an effective defense even when they are on the right side of the law. Debt buyer lawsuits typically play out before the courts with a stark inequality of arms, pitting unrepresented defendants against seasoned collections attorneys.
The amount at issue in any one debt buyer lawsuit rarely exceeds a few thousand dollars, but the stakes are often higher than they seem. Many of the defendants in these cases are poor or living at the margins of poverty and this is often the reason they fell into debt in the first place. For them, the impact of an adverse judgment can be devastating. Human Rights Watch interviewed alleged debtors in court who broke down in tears while trying to explain how the judgments debt buyers had won against them would impact their ability to pay bills and support their children. . . .
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