This story was co-published with The Daily Beast.
Several years ago, Capital One gave Oscar Parsons, 46, his first credit card. At the time, he didn’t need a loan. But he banked at a Capital One branch near his Bronx apartment, and when it was offered, he thought, “Why not?”
Initially, he had little problem keeping up with the payments. But after a run of construction jobs came to an end, he fell behind and found himself ducking the bank’s collections calls, he said. Each time the company’s TV commercials popped up, asking, “What’s in your wallet?” Parsons thought: “It’s not enough to pay you back.”
This year, Capital One provided Parsons with another first: his first lawsuit. For failing to pay his $1,800 debt, the company took him to court. Currently on public benefits and in a job training program, Parsons has nothing Capital One can take. But should Parsons find work, Capital One could use a court judgment to seize money from his bank account or take a portion of his wages.
It was a hard lesson — one learned by hundreds of thousands of the bank’s cardholders. No lender sues more of its customers than Capital One, according to ProPublica’s review of state court data.
Over the past year, ProPublica has sought to illuminate the scope of debt collection lawsuits, which, though they are often filed by public companies in public courts, are a largely hidden part of the nation’s financial life. The suits hit workers who earn below $40,000 a year the hardest and federal garnishment laws provide scant protection. Even workers near the minimum wage could have a quarter of their take-home pay taken or their bank accounts cleaned out. State laws typically offer little more protection.
To identify which companies file the most collection suits, ProPublica obtained and analyzed court data from 11 states. In every state, Capital One stood out.
During the years of the recession, particularly 2008 through 2010, when the number of credit card defaults surged, many banks filed more lawsuits. But Capital One dwarfed them all, reaching levels never matched by any company before or since, according to ProPublica’s review of data going back to 1996.
By our estimate, the suits exceeded half a million per year nationally during those peak years.
Since 2011, Capital One’s suits have dropped considerably, though they have continued to far exceed the totals of any other bank. For example, in Indiana counties for which court data is available — home to about two-thirds of the state’s population — the bank filed about 3,360 suits in 2014. That’s about a quarter of the suits Capital One filed in 2010, but still more suits than all other national banks combined in 2014. In Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, Capital One’s suits comprised about 40 percent of all suits by major banks. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, the tally was about the same.