Spotlight editor Walter V. Robinson talked with readers Tuesday about the team's new series, Debtors' Hell.
boston_lad: hi. what sort of changes are you hoping to see in MA, and even in the US, as a result of bringing this information to light?
Walter_V__Robinson: We'll leave the results/changes to others. Our job was to dig up the information and let people know what's going on.
Happy: Has there been any backlash from this story? Any threats?
Walter_V__Robinson: None really - just several hundred calls and emails, the vast bulk of those from people who have similar experiences to relate. And, of course, some from people who believe - not without justification - that these debtors would not have gotten run over if they'd paid their bills in the first place.
dottie: what prompted the Globe to begin work on the story?
Walter_V__Robinson: As with most stories, a single phone call from someone whose car had been hauled off in the middle of the night. That led us to court records, and we were astounded at how many people are being sued for bad debts. It's in the many millions nationwide; and close to 600,000 sued by debt collectors in Massachusetts in the last five years.
cotter_creditboards: Was your goal of the article more to initiate some type of change, or more aimed at educating the public about unscrupulous Collectors like the Goldstones?
Walter_V__Robinson: It was the latter - to educate the public. We'll leave the changes to those who have the power to make them.
boston_lad: how do you respond to people (plenty of whom are on the message board for this story) who point out that debtors only have themselves to blame for their situation? Why should we feel sympathy for them, especially if the collectors are acting legally (for the most part)?
Walter_V__Robinson: That's true, to a point. But even the debt collectors we've talked to recognize that the vast bulk of people who get into debt trouble do not do so willingly. It's unanticipated problems: A wageearner gets sick or dies. There are high medical costs. One of the two breadwinners loses a job, or gets "downsized.''
JW: Walter - Thanks for a great job. These abuses seemed to happen in Small Claims Court. Are people with larger debts actually better off than people with smaller debts in terms of abusive experience with courts?
Walter_V__Robinson: Pradoxically, the answer is probably yes. The larger the debt, the more likely it is the debtor will have either a lawyer or the savvy you need to navigate the court system. And if the debt is between $2,000 and $25,000, the case goes before a judge, not a clerk. It is clerks who handle small claims cases.
concerned: Your research was based only in MA , but don't you believe this is a national story?
Walter_V__Robinson: Tomorrow's story will be about the problem nationally.
cotter_creditboards: What one issue struck you as the most disturbing part of this while researching and compiling this article?
Walter_V__Robinson: What was most troubling to us was the way unsophisticated people are treated in the state court system, especially in small claims. They are personally mistreated too often by some court officials. And they are up against debt collection lawyers, who use - and sometimes abuse - the court rules to their advantage.
CramItCCCAs: One of the people in your story was incarcerated until they paid a debt. Is there any legal justification for this?
Walter_V__Robinson: Strictly speaking, yes. The man was in violation of a court order. So the judge held him in contempt and sent him to jail for 28 days. But the man didn't have the money; and there is some question whether he understood what was happening to him. He was not a sympathetic character, to be sure. But four weeks in jail over Christmas - when across the hall in criminal session people often walk free.
fromMA: I cant't help but think that an anciliary problem is the ease of getting credit. I must receive at least 10 "pre-approved" solicitations each week. When my child went to college I couldnt believe the ease that credit cards can be obtained. I know its pie in the sky but I really wish the banks would be more objective. All in all a scary series no matter whose fault it is to get into this predicament.
Walter_V__Robinson: There is a direct cause and effect here. Too many credit cards given out to too many people who don't need them, or don't have the experience to handle credit responsibly.
STEVE: tHE PART ABOUT THE LAWYERS RUNNING THE SHOW i THINK IS CRIMINAL. Is there anything being done now to stop this practice?
Walter_V__Robinson: I think the court system is moving quickly to curn this practice.
gal123: What ever happened to people being responsible for their own actions?? i.e. charging up debt and paying for it
Walter_V__Robinson: I've dealt with this question. But it's always worth revisiting. For people who don't read the fine print - and, let's be honest, how many of us have read our credit card agreements? - it would be nice to be told more clearly that you could be hit with 30 percent interest rates; or that paying the monthly minimum will keep you in debt forever. But the credit card industry got Congress to kill provisions that would have made it easier for people to understand the consequences of using credit cards.
cotter_creditboards: I saw the answer from Connolly and Mulligan, but did not see anything from AG Reilly. Was the AG contacted during the investigation for his statement?
Walter_V__Robinson: Yes, he was. His office's record on this is part of tomorrow's installment.
Len: It doesn't sound as if the "court system" is any hurry to rectify this. It just sounds as though too many of them are on the take and involved with it!
Walter_V__Robinson: I don't agree. The chief justice of the district courts, Lynda Connolly, started taking remedial measures pretty soon after we first raised these issues with her in February. She still has some systemic issues to deal with, but it appears that she wants to correct problems.
Turkued: Would you say that the informality of small claims courts...designed to help the little guy...is actually being used to hurt him?
Walter_V__Robinson: I think that's right. There is a presumption in many courts that a) people who get sued know all the rules; and b) the debt collectors are probably right. We have yet to witness a court clerk ask any debt collection lawyer to show him proof of the debt.
concerned: Will these changes involve judges looking for proof the debt is really owed? That the debtor was properly notified, etc? Are the courts dedicated to the idea that rubber stamping default judgments to the same companies must end?
Walter_V__Robinson: It's clear that the court will take steps to make it more certain that people get proper notification that they have been sued. On your other questions, time will tell.
cotter_creditboards: Regarding the "direct cause and effect" answer you have made. There are those who, for the most part, handle credit responsibly. What is your advice for those who have had incidents with their issuer where an interest rate is hiked up from 8 or 9 percent to over 30%, effectively tripling a minimum payment?
Walter_V__Robinson: I'd recommend that they read the chapter of the book by Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law School, which is posted online at boston.com - or is about to be. It has really good advice for consumers from one of the country's leading experts.
Turkued: Do the debt collection agencies and their attorneys even have proof of debt? These things are sold so many times is it conceivable the proof, resting with the original creditor, doesn't even exist at the current time?
Walter_V__Robinson: This is a particular problem with debt buyers who are buying the debt two or three times removed from the original creditor. They seldom have proof. What they are buying is a computerized printout of accounts. And so far, the courts seem to think that's enough evidence. But only because consumers do not know enough to remind the court that the plaintiff has to prove his or her case.
concerned: Time will tell, could mean business as usual. Will you stay with the story?
Walter_V__Robinson: Yes, we will.
gal123: It seems to me that the only person to blame in the scheme of things is the debtor, the one who ignores countless letters. Only when the creditors they OWE decide to take the next step...which in some cases is to place liens and or seize their vehicles is when all of a sudden they are concerned about their outstanding accounts!
Walter_V__Robinson: It's hard to find anyone who thinks it makes any sense to seize a beat-up car from someone to satisfy the debt. First off, it's not what the legislature intended; second, when someone can't get to work without a car, how does taking their car help them pay their debts? As for a house, if you ignore a debt and you own a house, of course the creditor has the right to put a lien on it.
concerned: How is the public responding to the story?
Walter_V__Robinson: We've had hundreds of emails and phone calls. No matter what your feelings are about debtors, and their personal responsibility, there have been some real injustices here that need addressing.
concerned: There is a judge in Michigan who had been granting many default judgments to one particular lawyer. One day he demanded proof the debts were owed. The lawyer asked for more time to prove the debt(s). That judge then took it upon himself to contact nearby counties to see if they also had a lot of default judgments from the same lawyer. That lawyer is now in jail for fraud. Do you think this is a possibility in your area?
Walter_V__Robinson: Yes, quiteb possible here - because it would be easy to manipulate the system in the same way. In Michigan, and in a similar case in Maryland, the lawyers allegedly used phony addresses to get default judgments against debtors. The lawyer in Michigan has been convicted; in Maryland, the lawyer is awaiting trial.
concerned: What should the public do to make sure this story stays in the public forum?
Walter_V__Robinson: Keep the heat on us.
spotlightadmirer: Is this mistreatment of "unsophisticated" people in small claims court as blatantly present in other wings of the MA court system (e.g., probate or criminal)?
Walter_V__Robinson: I do not know, but suspect not: At other levels of the court, both sides are most often represented by attorneys.
concerned: How? What do you need?
Walter_V__Robinson: We pay attention when people call us. I imagine the Legislature does too.
concerned: Will your article mention consumer laws that protect people?
Walter_V__Robinson: The Globe's website, boston.com, has links to lots of sites with this information.
spotlightadmirer: Do you think there is a tie in with the debtors story by the Globe and the emmy-winning Joe Bergantino feature on CBS4 "Judges on Recess"
Walter_V__Robinson: No, Joe, I don't think so.
CramItCCCAs: How powerful are the collection agency lobby's? Have they influenced the law makers in the same way credit card companies have?
Walter_V__Robinson: Good question. I think we'll soon see first-hand here in Massachusetts, because there are likely to be some proposed legislative changes.
Walter_V__Robinson: Thanks for all of those questions. I enjoyed the back and forth.
Walter_V__Robinson: Good day.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.