An exhaustive, yearlong investigation into new and abusive credit practices by big companies eager to profit from the working poor yielded four key findings:
• Big financial firms such as General Electric regularly collaborate with doctors and hospitals to transform medical bills into high-interest consumer debt because this approach provides an easier way to collect from patients with no medical insurance — and it’s highly profitable as well.
•Under a new and expanding business model, national corporations hawk products such as used cars, computers and credit cards to poor consumers mostly to entice them into piling up high-interest debt.
•Other big banks and credit-card outfits systematically badger unsophisticated consumers to pay off debts even after these debts have been officially extinguished by bankruptcy courts.
•Micro-lending, an institution aimed at alleviating poverty, takes a turn toward profit-making, and in the process, borrowers in Mexico end up mired in debt with interest rates that can top 100 percent.
With stories told through real victims, Grow, Epstein, Berner and Smith served the public interest by illuminating the excesses that all too often taint the corporate world.
The results were significant: The Senate Finance Committee said that the series, published May 21, Nov. 12, Dec. 3 and Dec. 24, spurred the committee to launch a 2008 inquiry. Additionally, a number of companies vowed to change their credit policies.
Smith said, “At a time when the media is under pressure to reduce costs, we were encouraged by our editor, Paul Barrett, who had the full backing of top editors, to take all of the time necessary to thoroughly check facts; go back for third, fourth and fifth visits to sources; and take time to write and rewrite these stories as many times as necessary to get them right. It’s a reminder of why we all went into journalism in the first place.”
Epstein advised, “Go talk to ordinary people, and people inside of organizations who you least expect to speak candidly with you. Go find these untold stories.”