Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Debtors prison, 2010

I can just hear my old co-workers in collections trying out their new talk-off.
"You know, you can go to jail for this debt -- don't you read the newspapers?"
The Minneapolis Star Tribune exposed how collection law firms are using the courts to jail debtors in some jurisdictions, after a failure to appear. The series "Hounded" prompted Sen. Al Franken to introduce legislation to combat the pressure tactic.
Debt collectors, however, do not see this as a problem. The prospect of prison bars  is a powerful motivator. Newspaper stories about debtors landing in jail give credibility to a threat that many of them have been making right along.
But that doesn't make the threat any more legitimate. Debtors (and supposed debtors) should be aware that being jailed over a debt is -- remotely -- possible, in some jurisdictions, under very particular circumstances.
But for this to happen, the debt must be in the hands of an actual attorney who has filed court papers and served you with them. Further, a judge must have been irked enough at your failure to appear in court to sign a bench warrant.
Collection agencies have none of these powers, so you shouldn't let an agency collector get away with this threat. Demand to know:
-- What is the index number of the action against you, in what court.
-- Who is the attorney bringing the action, and where is he or she licensed to practice.
This information can be checked, so if you get vague answers it is likely that there is nothing behind the threat. At least not yet.

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