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The success of such firms is a measure of how dramatically the world of consumer debt in America has changed. It isn't just that consumers lean too heavily on credit cards to get by. It is that, almost unnoticed by policy-makers, many millions of Americans have slid, or been pushed, into a debtor's hell where bank accounts are drained, wages are attached, property confiscated, and threats of jail are an everyday occurrence.

A fate once reserved for the worst deadbeats has become commonplace. The losers are the friends, neighbors, or relatives of just about everyone - people who generally owe the money collectors are after but don't deserve what comes next. People such as Ana R. Rios, a 40-year-old Maynard woman whose car was hooked near midnight even though her debts had been erased through bankruptcy. Or Thomas S. Jessamey, a 45-year-old Saugus man who spent six months struggling to get his car back after it was seized for an old credit card bill.

An estimated one of every 11 consumers has at least one credit card that is more than 90 days past due, according to nationwide data provided to the Globe by the credit reporting agency Experian. Many are already being pursued by debt collectors, or someday will be. And it is a vast army coming after them: In the last decade, the ranks of debt collectors have doubled to 162,000, making debt collection among the fastest-growing sectors of the financial services industry.

In Massachusetts, a Spotlight review of records in all 70 district courts, and interviews with court officials and collection attorneys, found that professional collectors filed an estimated 575,000 lawsuits between 2000 and 2005 - about one lawsuit for every 11 Bay State residents. The vast bulk of those were filed as small-claims actions in the district courts, where debt collectors always have lawyers and the debtors almost never do.

At nearly every stage, the Globe found, the debt collection system in the state is stacked against the average consumer:

  • Many small-claims courts have effectively become accomplices of collection firms, routinely giving them the upper hand in court cases while casually disregarding the rights and dignity of ordinary citizens.

Ana Rios with the 1995 Buick that constables seized at 11:30 the night of her birthday in 2004 for an old credit card debt -- a debt that had been discharged. (Globe Staff Photo / Michele McDonald)

  • Collectors almost always win the lawsuits they file, without being asked for evidence that the debts they are chasing are actually owed.
  • Like Dimanche, debtors frequently receive no notice of the lawsuits against them because debt collectors provide courts with outdated addresses for the people they are suing.
  • The disabled, the elderly, and the working poor are often talked into repaying their debts from their monthly government checks, which by law are protected from legal judgments.
  • And an obscure posse of law enforcement agents - constables and deputy sheriffs - operate freely as the blunt instrument of collection firms, with neither their steep fees nor their sometimes heavy-handed tactics regulated.

It is, in short, a system made safe - and very profitable - for Massachusetts collectors like such as Commonwealth and Norfolk, and for others like them across the country.

''The creditors are all repeat players. They know exactly how the game works,'' said Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor who studies consumer debt. ''We're watching a fight between two players, one a skilled repeat gladiator, and one who's thrown into the ring for the first time and gets clubbed over the head before they even get a sense of what the rules are.''

Printer friendly | E-mail to a friend | Other Special Reports
  Pages: [1]  [2]  [3]  [4]  [5]  [6]  [7]  | [Part Two]  [Part Three]  [Part Four] | Series homepage