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Spotlight: 2006

Debt collectors shook down the working poor — and state courts let it happen

People had $500 limits on their credit cards. Yet they were suddenly facing thousands of dollars in bills.

A clipping of the Boston Globe front page featuring the Spotlight Team's investigation of how the Massachusetts court system treated people with credit card debt. Headline says, "No mercy for consumers."

Spotlight Team: Walter V. Robinson (editor), Beth Healy, Michael Rezendes, Francie Latour, and Heather Allen (intern)


Walter V. Robinson was sitting on a bench at small claims court in April 2005 when Peter Damon, a veteran who had lost both arms in Iraq, stepped up to a court clerk. When Damon tried to give his name, the clerk barked, “There’s no time for that,” and ordered him to sit down. Robinson, though, took note, and an hour later showed up at Damon’s home and knocked on the door. He wanted to hear his story.

Damon would become a key subject in Spotlight’s investigation into the national debt collections industry and the Massachusetts court system. The two seemed to have joined forces to steamroll small-time debtors like Damon, who had been summoned from his hospital bed at the Walter Reed medical center over a $980 debt that a collections agency couldn’t even prove he owed.

On that morning, the Spotlight Team was still in the early phases of its work, hunting for sources and trying to understand the scale of the issue. But what Robinson and his reporters had already found was shocking. In Massachusetts, a handful of shady debt collectors had come to dominate the market for unpaid liabilities that retailers and credit card companies had sold to them for pennies on the dollar. In many cases, late fees, penalties, and astronomical interest rates had pushed debts on people’s $500-limit cards to $2,000 or even $3,000.

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Employing county deputy sheriffs — and, in Boston, constables, many of whom had criminal records — the debt collectors seized cars in the middle of the night, shook down debtors for cash payments, and often provided the court with outdated addresses so that debtors would not receive crucial legal notices. Even more egregious, the state’s small claims courts served as a de facto arm of the debt collectors’ operations, by letting the collectors’ lawyers manage hearings themselves and sometimes threatening debtors with imprisonment if they didn’t pay up.

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The relatively easy part of the investigation was documenting individual cases of hardship — say, the rippling consequences for a single mother of losing her car. The team also identified some of the Massachusetts industry’s worst actors, prolific debt collection companies that used thuggish tactics to pursue tens of thousands of cases a year. The hard part of the investigation — the colder, more technical work — was determining the extent of the problem. How many people were affected? How pervasive were these practices?

To answer those questions, the team spent mind-numbing weeks in front of computer terminals in Massachusetts courthouses counting every small claims debt case by hand. “The only way you could do it was one by one,” Michael Rezendes says. The task yielded shocking insights, like this one: From 2000 to 2005, the debt collectors had filed one collections lawsuit for every 11 Massachusetts residents, the Spotlight Team estimated.

The four-part series, published in the summer of 2006, caused a scandal in the Massachusetts legal world and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The state’s top judges said they had no idea of the abuses taking place in the courts they theoretically oversaw. The district court system’s chief justice called the Globe’s revelations “horrific” and established a commission to recommend reforms. Not long after, the state implemented licensing standards for debt collectors.

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“This was a classic Spotlight story,” Robinson says, “of a victimized population being mistreated and the government being complicit.”


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