Warning: Debt collection tsunami coming

Consumers need greater protection from creditors

THERE’S A SECOND COVID-related wave about to hit families in the Commonwealth: a tsunami of debt collection activity that threatens our economic recovery. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, 20 percent of folks in Massachusetts had a debt in collection–rising to an eye popping 39 percent in communities of color, according to the Urban Institute. These numbers will only worsen as we face uncertainty around future COVID shutdowns and whether additional federal aid will be offered to people who have lost and are still losing work during this pandemic. The inevitable eviction tidal wave resulting from the end of the eviction moratorium will also increase debt collection activity by landlords for back rent.

But Massachusetts legislators can help our struggling families right now by passing the Debt Collection Fairness Act. Our representatives in the State House must ensure that the COVID-19 crisis does not result in Bay Staters, particularly those in communities of color that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, entering a never-ending cycle of debt.

Right now, large out-of-state debt buyers who purchase portfolios of old credit card accounts for pennies on the dollar can sue individuals in court for these alleged debts. If the court issues a judgment , the collector  can hound a struggling consumer for 20 years to collect that judgment. The entire time, 12 percent interest accrues on it. In the entire nation, only Vermont and Rhode Island also charge interest on judgments that high. Folks end up paying these debts for decades because they can’t afford to make payments large enough to reduce the principal.

After a judgment is issued, judges can require consumers to appear in court for payment review hearings. If the consumer fails to attend (even if they never received the notice), the court can issue a civil arrest warrant. In 2016, four randomly selected Massachusetts small claims courts issued a total of 1,325 civil arrest warrants in a single year. Abusive creditors use these civil arrest warrants to frighten consumers into making payments they can ill afford or might not even be legally obligated to make.  No one in the Commonwealth should be imprisoned, or threatened with imprisonment, for failure to pay a consumer debt.

With that judgment in hand, creditors can also garnish a persons’ wages, forcing an employer to send them a big chunk of the consumer’s paycheck before he or she ever sees it.  The US Department of Housing and Urban Development considers less than $1,008.65 a week ($52,450 per year) very low income for a family of four in our high-cost state. But right now, a single mom – even one with three young children – earning that amount could have 15 percent ($151 a week ,or $7,867.47 per year) garnished from her paycheck – significantly impacting her ability to feed her family, pay utility bills, or buy a needed prescription.  No working person should be forced to lose 15 percent of their pay.

The Debt Collection Fairness Act will  increase the amount of wages protected from seizure by creditors to $892.50 per week and allow 10 percent of wages above that amount to be garnished, reduce the interest rate on monies owed to debt collectors to 6 percent from 12 percent, and reform the use of civil arrest warrants.

Meet the Author

Jacquelynne Bowman

Executive director, Greater Boston Legal Services
Meet the Author

Richard Dubois

Executive director, National Consumer Law Center
The Debt Collection Fairness Act is a powerful and necessary economic development and recovery tool that will help keep consumers in their homes, able to return to work, and able to invest their wages in their local businesses and communities. Massachusetts lawmakers should pass this commonsense legislation now to help the vulnerable families, particularly in communities of color, who were already disproportionately impacted by debt collection, weather the economic storm that we fear has only just begun.

Jacquelynne Bowman is the executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services and Richard Dubois is the executive director of the National Consumer Law Center with headquarters in Boston.