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In Debt, with No Easy Way Out

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In Debt, with No Easy Way Out

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In Debt, with No Easy Way Out

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

The doorbell rings in the middle of the night. Collection agents stand outside and demand payment for an old credit card bill, in cash, on the spot. Often this story does not end well. If people can't come up with the money right away, the agents demand the keys to their car.

It's 4:00 a.m. Do you know where your car is isn't just a lien from the cult movie Repo Man anymore. It's a scene that plays out with increasing frequency in neighborhoods across the country.

According to a new series by the Boston Globe, debt collection has grown into a billion-dollar industry over the past decade. The newspaper described how people who run up debts on easy credit, if they don't pay it off banks can then sell their debt to collection agencies, then the debt collectors use threats and lawsuits and seizures in a system that's stacked against consumers.

In extreme cases, some debtors are even thrown in jail. Later on, we'll talk with the Last Comic Standing, Josh Blue. But first, debt collectors. If you've had creditors after you, what methods did they use? Did you pay up? Or if you're a creditor, what guidelines do you follow when you collected on bad debts? Are aggressive tactics justified?

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Joining us first is Walter Robinson, editor of the Boston Globe series Debtors Hell, also assistant managing editor of the Globe. He's with us from the studios of member station WGBH in Boston. Nice to speak with you.

Mr. WALTER ROBINSON (Assistant Managing Editor, Boston Globe): Good to be with you today.

CONAN: You tell the story of one woman who was called into the Brockton District Court for failing to pay a $400 oil bill, and the judge ordered her to take off her jewelry right in front of the bench and turn it over as payment.

Mr. ROBINSON: That's correct. He even wanted her wedding ring, which she refused to turn over. He did take the rest of her jewelry, and he held it, in effect, hostage for a month until she came up with the money to pay for the overdue oil bill.

CONAN: Now the system, as you describe it, seems not only (unintelligible) the debt collectors, not only is it sometimes aggressive and sometimes dubious tactics, but the way you're describing it is the courts aid and abet.

Mr. ROBINSON: This is certainly true. We found in great detail in Massachusetts in many courthouses, the debtors come in not knowing the rules. They often, most often, owe the money. The debt collectors are always represented by lawyers, and their - the relationships between the court officials, the court clerks who hear the cases, and the debt collection lawyers are so cordial that if a debt collection lawyer doesn't show up, the clerk sometimes appoints another lawyer to take his place even though the case should be dismissed.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And this is in often small claims court, which was a system that was set up for, you know, it was supposed to be Judge Judy - two people without lawyers working out their problems.

Mr. ROBINSON: That's correct, and it's really turned into a forum where corporate - big corporate collectors go after ordinary citizens. And the ordinary citizens, since they're in debt in the first place, can't afford lawyers. They don't know the court rules. And many times they don't even show up and the debt collectors get automatic default judgments, which in Massachusetts are good for 20 years, and they grow at the rate of 12 percent a year, which is pretty good return on your money.

CONAN: You also describe a system - you say people don't show up for their hearings - well, partly because the instructions are in very small print on the back of the piece of paper they get - but often these debt collection agencies manage to send the summons to the court hearing to the wrong address, to an old address, and then - but somehow when they get the collection, when they get the authorization to collect, they manage to find the car.

Mr. ROBINSON: That's true. We found a disturbing number of cases in which the debt collectors - and these are companies which buy debts for pennies on the dollar, so it's often three or four years after the fact.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: And then they just file a lawsuit against the person at the last address they presume the person lived at. Very often people don't find out about the court suit until the tow truck arrives at four or five o'clock in the morning saying we have this judgment and pay us now or we take your car. And when they take your car, most people, at that point, find somebody - a relative, a friend - to loan them the money because people need their cars.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's go into this system a little bit more. This is, you know, failure - most of the time, your series seems to accept, that these people do owe the money and fail to pay one debt or another. But somehow, you know, three or four years later, when they think somehow it's been resolved, this comes back to haunt them.

Mr. ROBINSON: That's true. And it, you know - there's been this explosion of debt, particularly credit card debt in our economy, and very often we report on it - we in the media - with a wide angle lens, and we report such things that the national savings rate is now below zero.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: When you take a telephoto lens and you look at that, what you find is that tens of millions of people are deeply in debt in that even those who maintain the minimum monthly payment, but many, many people who are not in the top quintile of the economy are carrying large credit card debt, and if one single thing goes wrong in the family - a job loss, a divorce, or anything like that - people are unable to pay these debts. And according to Experian, which is one of the three national credit reporting agencies, there are 20 million consumers who are more than 90 days past due on bank credit cards alone.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. If you've had experience with the debt collection business, on either side, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And let's talk with Karen(ph). Karen's calling from Rochester, New York.

KAREN (Caller): Hi there. Yes, my experience had to do with mistaken identity.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KAREN: I had been hassled with a - it wasn't credit card. It was for a utility bill. And I personally have never had a utility in my own name, but this one was also from some company out in Utah, I believe, and they were calling me at all hours hassling me for this amount, would not believe that I had never been to the state, let alone accrued a utility debt in it. And what - after I had them - you know, I'd convinced them at least to leave me alone for a little bit, although they kept calling, and later on, a couple of nights later, there was a report on the news that a person with my name had died. And some friends actually called my husband to ask if he knew where I was, and it turned out this person was from another - from this western - from Utah.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

KAREN: And - with my own name, and...

CONAN: And unlikely to pay now either.

KAREN: Pardon.

CONAN: And not likely to pay now either.

KAREN: That's right. And I was so mad at the company for giving me such a hassle and not listening to me that I didn't even call them up to say that this is the person you probably wanted and not me and leave me alone. They eventually did leave me alone, but it was very upsetting during the time. They're calling all hours of the night, and...

CONAN: Did they threaten to take you to court?

KAREN: No, they never did threaten that. I think it finally came to the point of Social Security numbers, although I didn't really want to give them my number over the telephone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I could understand that, yeah.

KAREN: For obvious reasons.

CONAN: All right, Karen, I'm glad it worked out for you.

KAREN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

KAREN: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And, Walter Robinson, you describe a case in Massachusetts where a man named Rodrigues(ph), who spelled his - the last letter was an S - was brought into court because they thought he was a Rodriguez(ph) who spelled his name with a Z - a guy half his age, and had a debt - and he was presumed guilty.

Mr. ROBINSON: That's correct. The utility - the law firm representing the utility filed a case at the last address where the person had the electric service. Well, the person had moved. And then there was a judgment issued, and then they went looking for the person, and they got a warrant to arrest, or a threat to arrest, the wrong man. The wrong man went into court, and it took him two or three visits to convince them that he was the wrong man...

CONAN: Yeah, two or three days off work, yeah.

Mr. ROBINSON: These cases of mistaken identity are - there's an enormous number of them out there, and there are so many million debt collection cases or debts being sold, and the companies that buy them often do very minimal so-called skip tracing work. And if your name's John Smith, somebody's going to get at you pretty quickly.

CONAN: Briefly, you work for the Boston Globe, and you were investigating the system in Massachusetts. Did you come away with a suspicion about how widespread nationally this is?

Mr. ROBINSON: Yes, we did. We surveyed court systems in a number of states. Massachusetts has a very low limit, $2,000 or less, on small claims lawsuits.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: Most states have higher limits. And we found the rate of lawsuits against people - and only a proportion of debt collection cases end up in court. This woman who just called was obviously someone who was being harassed on the phone. They had no intention of taking her to court. But just to give you an example: in Massachusetts in the last five years, there has been one debt collection lawsuit in small claims court for every 11 people in the state. And the rate is higher in states like Maryland and Indiana and Michigan, where we also surveyed numbers.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Peter Duffey, who used to be a collection agent. He currently owns the Missouri-based Double Helix Incorporated, a private investigation firm that provides debt collection support services. He's with us today from the studios of member station KCUR in Kansas City. Nice of you to join us.

Mr. PETER DUFFEY (Owner, Double Helix Inc.): Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: I think you've had a chance to look at the Boston Globe series on this. Do you think it was fair?

Mr. DUFFEY: No, actually, I don't. I think that it was particularly one-sided.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DUFFEY: I do think that it is possible to find stories of not only abuse but stories of - stories of a - kind of a bad story...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DUFFEY: ...in every situation. But overall, even if I don't agree with the tactics that were sometimes used by the agencies that were outlined in Mr. Robinson's article, I do think that aggressive debt collection tactics are necessary.

CONAN: Why?

Mr. DUFFEY: Well, first of all, obviously, by the time the debt was received by those agencies that were working, or purchased by those agencies that were working, they had been sold at least once or twice prior to that. It had been worked by two collection agencies before that, plus the original creditor. So you have to realize that this was the fifth or sixth agency that was asking these people for the money.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DUFFEY: And by the time they got around to using these aggressive tactics, I mean, they were forcing the issue to be a priority is really what it amounts to.

CONAN: So these are people, you know, legitimately pursing deadbeats.

Mr. DUFFEY: Mm, yes. I mean, like I said, I don't necessarily agree with the tactics used there. I personally have never been involved - well, I can't say that. I was involved in one case where we took someone's car, but it was a doctor. And I can't say that I agree with those tactics, but at the same time, aggressive debt collection tactics are very necessary.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. DUFFEY: Including lawsuits.

CONAN: And we'll have more...

Mr. DUFFEY: Wage garnish...

CONAN: And liens on houses and that sort of thing.

Mr. DUFFEY: Liens on houses, wage garnishments, bank levies, all of those things are necessary, very necessary.

CONAN: All right, we'll have more on this when we come back from a short break. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about debt collectors, a necessity in the world of lending and borrowing. Recently there's been a rise of complaints about some of the tactics they use.

Our guests are Walter Robinson, editor of a Boston Globe investigative series called Debtors' Hell, and Peter Duffey, who owns Double Helix Incorporated, a private investigation firm which provides debt collection services. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And, Walter Robinson, I want to give you a chance to respond to Peter Duffey's criticism of your series.

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I doubt that many debt collectors thought that our series focused in the right place. They would like us to focus on those debt collection agencies which, as we noted, do the job properly and legally. But the fact of the matter is, as I think Mr. Duffey knows, is that the number of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission has gone up ten-fold since 1998 about debt collectors. It is by far the largest single cause of complaints about anything in the marketplace. The - your caller - the caller from Utah talked about being harassed for a debt she didn't owe.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: What often happens - debt collectors who try to collect from people like this, once they're convinced that the person doesn't owe the debt, they turn around and resell it to someone else who then tries to collect it from - this woman may hear again from someone else.

And there's a serious problem within the industry. There are twice as many people collecting debts today as there were 10 years ago. There are - last year alone, $66 billion in bank credit card debt was sold off to debt collectors. That's an enormous amount of money, a huge number of people chasing it, and if you say only one or two or three percent of the people being chased get run over or stomped on unfairly, that amounts to millions of people.

This is not a small number, and it's a serious problem. The trade organization for the debt collection industry is concerned about it. They have FOIA'd(ph) or sent a public records request for the Federal Trade Commission for all the records of the complaints.

CONAN: FOIA is...

Mr. ROBINSON: So it's not an issue that people in the industry, I think, should pretend doesn't exist.

CONAN: FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act. Peter Duffey, I'll get your response to that.

Mr. DUFFEY: Sure, I'd be happy to. The number of complaints has increased dramatically. I think that there were over 66,000 last year.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DUFFEY: I do have to say that a direct reflection of that is a huge increase in the amount of debt that's out there. Also, the debts are being collected a lot longer than they were previously because of things like an explosion in the debt-selling industry.

Also, a large number of those complaints are illegitimate. And the reason for that is because a lot of consumers are ill informed as to what their rights actually are, and they'll file a complaint that is based on rights that they believe that they have that they don't.

Also, there are a lot of places on the Internet now where you can get information on how to try to basically avoid your debts, and they tell people to file these complaints on purpose specifically to get the collection agency to leave them alone.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller in on the line, and let's go to Robert(ph). Robert's calling us from Jacksonville in Florida.

ROBERT (Caller): Yes, hi. I've been doing collections probably for about six years now or so, and I like to think of myself as probably by the book. I follow the regulations to the T. But the thing is, though, that you do also have a lot of people out there that have no intention, even when they get the credit, of ever paying it back.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROBERT: A lot of my file is basically first payment never received. And by the time it gets to my office, you're looking at about two years delinquency at this point. So, I mean, you got to have something, basically, to combat that when you've got, you know, consumers out there trying to defraud the system.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, or...

ROBERT: (unintelligible)

CONAN: ...unable to pay. I guess it depends on which side you're on. It might add up to the same thing.

ROBERT: I guess, but a lot of these cases are store cards. You know, you're in the mall, and, you know, you see something you want and you know you don't have the money for it, but you go ahead and buy it anyway in hopes that you're going to have the money later. And, you know, things don't always work out that way. I understand that, but you still have to be responsible for your actions, I guess.

CONAN: Have people filed complaints about you?

ROBERT: Oh, I've never once had a complaint in the five years that I've been -we follow the FDCPA, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. We are a very regulated office. Some of the things you were saying earlier, I couldn't even imagine trying to do. I've never once knocked on somebody's door. And, you know, again, we are one of the most regulated businesses out there. I mean, if something were - if I were to get in trouble, they could fine me directly. It wouldn't be fining the agency.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROBERT: I would get the fine.

CONAN: Walter Robinson, is this industry regulated?

Mr. ROBINSON: It's - that is a myth as far as we were able to determine. It is regulated on paper. Most attorneys general in the states do nothing. Here in Massachusetts, the attorney general in seven and a half years has filed one action against a debt collector. The Federal Trade Commission since the year 2000, which has primary responsibility, has filed only 10 actions in the country in six years. It's not a regulated industry. The number of complaints at 66,000, some percent - there's some reason that the numbers have exploded as they have, and it's because of tactics.

CONAN: Hmm. Robert, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ROBERT: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller in on the line, and let's go to Cory(ph). Cory in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

CORY (Caller): Hi. The gentleman spoke to the fact that certain debtors have rights that they think they have and may not necessarily have. Can the gentleman speak to the myth of state statutes of limitations on debt within certain states and the ability for a debtor to refuse payment altogether after a certain number of years have elapsed?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CORY: I think that there's a difference between the types of debt and the state statutes on each, and from what I understand they are different from state to state. But what I also understand is debt collectors are allowed to ask for the money for as many years as they wish.

CONAN: All right...

CORY: People are not legally obligated to pay it after a certain number of years.

CONAN: Uh-huh. Walter Robinson, I think you said earlier, in Massachusetts it's 20 years?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, once you get a judgment, you can collect on that judgment for 20 years. I think what the caller, Neal, is referring to is, what's your legal culpability as a debtor? And it varies from state to state, but Massachusetts is fairly typical. You can sue somebody over an unpaid debt that came as a result of a contract, like a credit card...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: ...for six years after the date of the last transaction. After six years and for the next 60 years, any debt collection agency can try to collect that money, but they can't sue you. They can call you at home a lot.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: Many of those older debts are sold for less than a penny on the dollar, and the companies that buy them make a couple of tries to get people to pay some amount and then they give up and resell it to someone else.

CONAN: And, of course, Peter Duffey, they would have no obligation, necessarily, to tell somebody, and by the way, you're under no obligation to pay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUFFEY: No, no, they're - no. It - what the caller insinuated is correct, and I agree with Mr. Robinson.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. DUFFEY: Once the statute runs on a debt, you no longer have a legal obligation to pay it unless the agency or the original creditor was able to prove that you were evading the debt on purpose in order to run out the statute of limitations.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I wonder what you think about the - what we brought up in terms of regulation. Is this, in your view, Mr. Duffey, a regulated industry, or is it one that, given some of the excesses that were reported in the Boston Globe, might need some more regulation?

Mr. DUFFEY: The industry is regulated. The heaviest part of regulation comes in the part of civil lawsuits filed by individual debtors against agencies for violations of the FDCPA. So, in essence, the court is responsible for handling a lot of the regulation. The FTC also, obviously, is part of it. But every debt collector out there lives in fear of a FDCPA lawsuit, every single one, because the suit will be against the agency and it will also be against the collector individually.

CONAN: Peter Duffey, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. DUFFEY: Thank you, Mr. Conan.

CONAN: Peter Duffey has worked in the credit collection industry for nearly a decade, currently owns the private investigation firm Double Helix Incorporated in Belton, Missouri, and he joined us today from the studios of member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri.

And, Walter Robinson, I wanted to get back to a point we were talking about earlier in terms of the party that's supposed to be neutral in all of this, and that's the courts. At least in Massachusetts, according to the system you described, they seem to be on the agents' - the collection agents' side.

Mr. ROBINSON: That's correct, Neal, and it's not just in Massachusetts. In a number of states judges have begun to realize that, as we quoted one of the principle clerks here saying, that the courts have become a subsidiary of the debt collection business.

The lawyers who represent the collectors know how to use the courts. The people who are being sued have no idea what their rights are, and there's nobody there to tell them their rights. And it's a huge imbalance. The Massachusetts court system is now beginning to deal with it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: And judges in other states are urging reforms.

CONAN: Now, you talked to the judge who's in charge of the small claims courts in Massachusetts, where again, much of this happens, and she said she was astounded by some of the things that were going on.

Mr. ROBINSON: She was. This is an area of the courts that doesn't get as much attention. Obviously the criminal business in the local district courts is what gets attention. And among the things that happens is lawyers who sue people when they're not ready to take their case forward, they get automatic continuances.

In Michigan, a judge has noted - and this is true everywhere - is the collection attorneys who buy these debts, whose companies buy these debts, only have in many cases computerized print-outs of the names of hundreds of people. And if they're actually asked to prove their case in court, most often they have to drop the case because they don't have the evidence that the person actually owes the debt.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, to help us sort through all of this, joining us now is Liz Pulliam Weston. She writes a regular column for MSN Money, and is also the author of Your Credit Score and Deal with Your Debt. She joins from NPR's bureau at NPR West in California. Nice to have you on the program again.

Ms. LIZ PULLIAM WESTON (Money Columnist, MSN): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: As you look at this, I mean, clearly, the first thing that a consumer needs to think about is not running up some debts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But beyond that, what rights do you have when dealing with a collection agency?

Ms. WESTON: Well, as other people have said, they're outlined in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. And you can find that - a pretty good synopsis of it - at the Federal Trade Commission Web site. So if you just Google FTC and fair debt collection, you'll see a summary of the rights you have. And they limit when and how a debt collector can contact you. You do have the right to tell a debt collector to stop contacting you. If you send them a letter and say stop contacting me about this debt, then they need to stop. The only way they can contact you again is if they intend to take a specific action. Unfortunately like, you know, that can include suing you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WESTON: I also wanted to make a point about the statute of limitations, because in many states you have to show up in court to assert that the statute of limitations has run out. And I've heard from a number of people that some collection agencies, knowing that the debt is too old to sue, sue anyway because they assume the people won't show up and get a judgment. And that goes on their credit report. So that's something that you have to go to court and assert. You can't just assume that, you know, the judge will know and throw the case out.

CONAN: Yeah. Walter Robinson, the way you described it in Massachusetts, 80 percent of the cases people don't show up, guilty (unintelligible).

Mr. ROBINSON: That's true. That's true.

CONAN: When you find yourself in this situation, Liz, can you call the police for help? A lawyer?

Ms. WESTON: Well, you probably can handle - if it's a simple case of mistaken identity, like what happened to Karen, and that's very obvious, you know, sending a letter saying I don't owe this debt, stop contacting me, mention the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, sometimes, many times that will get the harassment to stop, but not always.

If you have continuing problems with this, if you're running into a rogue debt collector, you might want to consider getting an attorney. And there's a group called the National Association of Consumer Advocates - they're at www.naca.net - that specifically deal - they have people that specifically specialize in fair debt collection and protecting consumers that have been targeted by companies that are not paying attention to the rules.

CONAN: We're talking with Walter Robinson, editor of The Boston Globe series called Debtors Hell. And with Liz Pulliam Weston, who writes a weekly column for MSN Money, and she's with us at NPR West. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get a caller on the line. This is Nancy. Nancy calling us from Arizona.

NANCY (Caller): Yes. I'm in serious debt and I'm trying to pay off my credit cards, but they keep increasing my interest rate, which is making it almost impossible to pay it off.

CONAN: Yes. Liz Pulliam Weston, she is not alone. This does happen to a lot of people.

Ms. WESTON: Yeah. It's very common. As soon as you fall behind on your debt the credit card company's going to ratchet up your interest rate to reflect the, you know, greater risk that you're going to default. You might want to consider looking for a legitimate credit counseling firm.

Now, this industry has gotten a really bad rap recently because of some bad actors, but there are legitimate credit counselors. And they have debt repayment plans that will allow you to get your interest rate reduced, put you on a payment plan, and possibly get you back on your feet.

The other alternative, unfortunately, is bankruptcy. If you cannot pay your bills, if you cannot pay back what you owe within three to five years, you might want to consider, you know, filing for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. It's not the best solution, but sometimes it's the best of the worst solutions.

CONAN: Nancy, good luck. I think she's left us. Walter Robinson, though, you pointed out situations when it's gone beyond that. When seizures are involved, people end up paying far more than their original debt in terms of paying the fees for the constable who's sent out to pick up the car and the towing fee and the storage fee at the lot.

Mr. ROBINSON: It's pretty extraordinary. If somebody defaults on a thousand dollar credit card bill, the rate that Liz was mentioning that kicks in is now over 30 percent annual interest rate. Then you get to court, there are fees added. And a thousand dollar debt quickly becomes a two thousand dollar debt. And then the constable shows up with a tow truck. The constable wants six hundred to nine hundred dollars just for rapping on your door with a nightstick at midnight. And the tow truck, that's another two or three hundred dollars. And people really get hit pretty hard by this.

But one of the reasons - and we haven't touched on this - is there's been an explosion of credit card debt. And one of the reasons for that is the banks have offered more and more credit to people who are much more likely to default, people in lower income brackets who don't have a history of credit.

And when they get in trouble with credit, they are much less sophisticated in dealing with it. They don't know, for instance, how to find the FTC Web site, if indeed they have access to computers and they don't know how to find lawyers. So there's a real problem here, and if the courts and the regulators don't step in and do something, the problem is likely to get worse.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. The system that you were describing of people almost, you know, predators of the elderly and people who really didn't know what was going on -Liz Pulliam Weston, do you have any advice for people like that who find themselves in that situation?

Ms. WESTON: Well, I think there are a few things that you can do if - you know, if you're being harassed. One of the things is, you know, as Mr. Robinson mentioned, finding an attorney. There is (unintelligible) there is, you know, pro bono services from your local Bar Association. Having a lawyer weigh in can really help - something on a legal letterhead - to get some of these agencies to back off.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's see if we can get one e-mail in quickly.

I'm a 27-year-old from Murray, Kentucky. I dropped out of college recently and according to the ominous letters I've been receiving, my outstanding financial aid loan debts will soon be turned over to a collection agency. This is my first dealing with the credit underworld.

I'm curious if I might slip under their radar, owing to the fact that I have no car or any other thing of value for them to repossess, plus no telephone with which to be harassed. How regularly are debtors jailed for their delinquency?

Well, I don't know. Liz Pulliam Weston, you have any idea?

Ms. WESTON: Well, this is a student loan? Is that what he said at the beginning?

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. WESTON: Yeah. Don't expect to slide under the radar. Student lenders and collectors for student loans have extraordinary powers. And the thing about student loans is that there is no statute of limitations. You never get out from under this debt. And typically it cannot be erased in bankruptcy. So this is a debt that literally will follow you to the end of your days.

So you've got to figure out some way to deal with this. Work out a payment plan. The nice thing is student loan debt is fairly flexible and if you work with these lenders you can often find a way to get this thing paid off.

CONAN: Yeah. They might not have a car now, but they may hope to have a car some day. That's the problem.

Ms. WESTON: At some point, let's hope.

CONAN: Liz Pulliam Weston, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. WESTON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Liz Pulliam Weston, the author of Your Credit Score and Deal with Your Debt. She joined us today from NPR West. And Walter Robinson, thank you.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Walter Robinson, editor of The Boston Globe series called Debtors' Hell.

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