Why you should always contest a credit-card lawsuit

By Felix Salmon
April 3, 2012
Joe Nocera for giving some well-deserved publicity to Jeff Horwitz's fantastic (and still ongoing) investigation into the way that banks encouraged debt collectors to sue Americans for credit-card debt they didn't owe.

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Well done to Joe Nocera for giving some well-deserved publicity to Jeff Horwitz’s fantastic (and still ongoing) investigation into the way that banks encouraged debt collectors to sue Americans for credit-card debt they didn’t owe.

Nocera also raises the possibility that people might start, quite rationally, simply walking away from their credit-card debts in much the same way that they have been walking away from their mortgages.

Lawyers on the front lines say that credit card debt collection remains a horrific problem. “Most of the time, the borrower has no lawyer,” says Carolyn Coffey, of MFY Legal Services, who defends consumers being sued by debt collectors. “There are terrible problems with people not being served properly, so they don’t even know they have been sued. But if you do get to court and ask for documentation, the debt buyers drop the case. It is not worth it for them if they have to provide actual proof.”

There are very serious questions about the reliability with which debtors are actually served by the collection agencies who buy credit-card debts from the big banks for as little as $0.018 on the dollar. All too often, the debtor doesn’t even know that they’ve been “served”, and therefore default judgments get filed against them even when the underlying documentation is weak or nonexistent.

But if you do find out that a collections agency is suing you for unpaid credit-card debt, then you should absolutely turn up in court and ask for documentation. By that point, of course, any hit to your credit will already have happened, so you can’t damage your credit score by fighting the suit and refusing to pay.And the simple act of asking the plaintiff to prove that you owe what they say you owe will very often make the whole suit disappear.

So get the word out: if you, or anybody you know, gets sued for unpaid credit-card debt, the first thing you should do is simply ask the person suing you to prove that you owe what they say that you owe. The onus is not on you to provide documentation that you paid off the debt, or anything like that. The onus is on them to prove that the debt exists. Borrowers should not shy away from asking for this proof out the moralistic feeling that they should pay back what they owe. And it turns out that much of the time, the debt will have been sold to them by a bank refusing to make “any representations, warranties, promises, covenants, agreements, or guaranties of any kind or character whatsoever” about the accuracy or completeness of the debts’ records. If that kind of language is in the transfer documents, it’s very unlikely that the collections agency will be able to win a contested lawsuit.

If people start contesting these suits en masse, then that will surely reduce the attractiveness, to the banks, of selling written-off debt to sleazy collections agencies en masse. If banks want to sue borrowers for money those borrowers owe, let the banks do so themselves. At least it’s more honest that way.

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