ProPublica spent years gathering data to shed light on how debt collectors use the courts. Today, we run through the most important lessons we learned about a tactic that affects millions.
Millions of Americans live with the possibility that, at any moment, their wages or the cash in their bank accounts could be seized over an old debt. It’s an easily ignored part of America’s financial system, in part due to a common attitude that people who don’t pay their debts deserve what’s coming to them.
A couple of years ago, we set out to find out more about the growing use of the courts to collect consumer debts. How many lawsuits are filed? Who is filing them? Who is getting sued?
The suits are filed in state and local courts, and many states rely on antiquated systems or only keep data at the county level. We ultimately collected what details we could from a variety of states and large, urban counties. Then, we wrote a series of stories sharing what we found:
- Four million Americans had their wages garnished over consumer debts in 2013, and workers earning between $15,000 and $40,000 a year were the most likely to experience a garnishment.
- Black communities are hit much harder by debt collection lawsuits than white ones, even in places where black households and white households have similar incomes.
- One subprime lender with stores nationwide was seizing pay from active-duty soldierswhen they fell behind on overpriced loans. (The company subsequently went out of business.)
- Some public and nonprofit hospitals use the courts to collect from patients who can’t pay their bills, even when those patients obviously qualify for financial assistance.
- Capital One sues its customers way more than any other bank and filed an enormous number of suits during the 2007–2009 recession.
But there’s a lot more to understand about the rise of this legal tactic — one that continues to alarm judges who see it firsthand.