Not far beneath the surface of America’s over-extended credit card economy is a seldom-seen world of hurt. An astonishing percentage of consumers are facing the kind of hard-edged treatment once reserved for true deadbeats.
For the Boston Globe Spotlight Team, it would take more than a year of digging and a hand-count of records in district courts across the state to discover that professional collectors have filed an estimated 575,000 lawsuits against debtors in Massachusetts over the past five years; that’s one for every 11 residents.
Collectors almost invariably win these cases. The team found that many court officials, deluged with cases, give a virtual rubber stamp to collectors’ claims. Life-derailing consequences ensue.
Debtors are losing their cars to collectors, and with them their livelihoods. Threats of jail time are commonplace; actual imprisonment happens less, but remains an outrageous reality long after the last of the colonial debtor’s prisons closed its doors.
“The Spotlight Team went to bat for a large and growing class of people without an advocate, and took on those who have preyed upon them,” Editor Martin Baron said. “Two of the most notorious collectors, whose practices were detailed in the series, promptly shut down their businesses and left the state.”
“The work of bringing simple fairness and justice to this exploding sector of the 21st century has, at last, begun,” Baron said.
This kind of investigative, public service journalism is important for two reasons, according to Spotlight Team Editor Walter V. Robinson: “It exposes wrongs that would otherwise go undetected. And it is the kind of journalism our readers expect. They depend on the Globe to hold public institutions accountable.”