The Vicious New Bank Shakedown That Could Seriously Ruin Your Life


It’s hard to imagine a more loathsome figure than the mob debt collector, a.k.a the “hired muscle.” It was this bruiser’s job to get the money owed to the Boss, by whatever methods he saw fit. That might include coming to your house in the dead of night to break your kneecaps. Whatever it took. The collector was promised a cut of that money, and he was going to get it.

Gangsta-style big banks have taken up where this character left off. They may not send a guy to break your kneecaps, but they are working in the shadows, chasing down debts from credit cards using methods that are both fraudulent and unlawful. They do this whether you actually owe the money or not.

Here’s the skinny: After widespread outrage over the big banks’ last crime wave against the American consumer – the “robo-signing” scam in which homeowners were hustled out of their houses by banks that sent fraudulent paperwork through the courts, they are at it again. This time, banksters are accused of helping debt collectors pursue faulty judgments against credit card customers by various dirty tricks that include – surprise! – robo-signing.  

California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who filed suit against JPMorgan Chase last Thursday, says that from January 2008 to April 2011 -- just as people were reeling from the Wall Street-driven financial crisis -- the megabank unleashed over 100,000 lawsuits against consumers over uncollected credit-card debt in the state of California alone. That includes 469 lawsuits in a single day. Now, it usually takes time and money to pursue lawsuits through the court system. So how in the world did Chase keep up this breakneck pace? The lawsuit claims that the bank took a number of little shortcuts, like robo-signing, in which bank employees produce sworn documents and other legal filings without bothering to check bank records or examine cases for accuracy.

Another nasty trick Chase is accused of deploying is what’s known, appropriately, as “sewer service.” This means that Chase failed to properly serve notice of debt collection lawsuits against consumers (it dumped the notices “in the sewer”), but then lied and said it did. This means, you, as a consumer, have no idea that a lawsuit has been launched against you. So here’s what happens: you get a default judgment that automatically favors the debt collector. The credit card company can then garnish your wages or freeze your bank account to get the money it says you owe. And you might not even owe it! Banks are sometimes chasing down consumers who have already paid their debts. Other times they are jacking up the size of the debts by adding bogus fees and interest costs.

All of this, of course, is unlawful. But it’s happening on a massive scale.

Last summer, a civil court judge in Brooklyn who presides over as many as 100 credit card cases a day told the New York Times that a whopping 90 percent of the credit card lawsuits that came across his desk were flawed and could not prove that a person owed the debt. Here’s the kicker: The errors in credit card suits often go undetected because the borrowers usually don’t show up in court to defend themselves (how can they, if they don’t know the suit has been filed?). As a result, an estimated 95 percent of lawsuits result in default judgments in favor of lenders.

The really chilling message sent in this new plot to squeeze cash out of hard-pressed Americans is that the big banks are completely undaunted by their exposure in the foreclosure robo-signing scam. Whatever penalties or bad publicity they have received have not restrained them one iota from pulling the exact same fraud again on hapless consumers. Neither has the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which now hangs in limbo with the endlessly delayed confirmation of Richard Cordray as head. The CFPB knows what’s going on, and it sent a friendly little note to Congress saying that “we are concerned about the system-wide problems in the debt collection market…and we want to see good practices come to dominate the market, including improved data integrity.” Well, golly, that’s reassuring.

There’s a half-baked law dating back to 1977 called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act which states, among other things, that debt collectors can’t call your house after 9pm. But until somebody actually enforces it, citing it to a goon hired by a big bank is about as effective as telling the mob’s hired man that he’s trespassing on your doorstep. And it’s certainly not preventing big banks from flooding the courts with bogus lawsuits that get decided in their favor before the consumer knows what’s hit her. Ironically, the American people are being hounded by the same big banks whose reckless activities stripped them of the jobs, pensions and financial security that they needed to pay off their credit card debts in the first place.

It’s interesting to hear what President Obama has to say about this. Oh, wait. The President didn’t say anything at all. He is completely missing in action, apparently still sticking by his gushing praise for JPMorgan Chase honcho Jamie Dimon as “one of the smartest bankers we've got.” Sure, if by smart you mean presiding over a bank that rips off consumers and loses billions in reckless derivatives trading -- and managing to keep your job.

Of course it’s not just JPMorgan Chase. Citigroup, Bank of America and other big banks are in on the action. The big banks work as an oligopoly, so if one bank gets away with a scam, the others quickly jump on board. They have little fear of prosecution, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder helpfully informed us recently. California’s AG is thankfully showing some guts, but will her counterparts around the country follow her lead? Unlikely. Many are bought and paid for by the financial sector.

The current abuse and criminal behavior of the big banks is unprecedented in American history. It’s anybody’s guess how far it will go, and how many consumers will be basically required to transfer their wealth to a group of gangsters.

At this point, what’s at stake is not just our financial well-being, but our very lives. We’ve seen a startling spike in suicide rates across the U.S. – 28 percent in the last decade. The rise is particularly acute among middle-aged Americans. More people now die from suicide than by car accidents. Financial woes have been frequently cited as a factor in this ghastly trend – and it’s not hard to guess that being hounded by debt collectors to whom the law doesn’t apply would not tend to improve the situation.

“Your money or your life” is the fabled threat of highwaymen who used to lay in wait for travelers on dark nights. The outlaw is no longer hiding behind a tree, but the man in the bank boardroom is just as determined to extract his pound of flesh. And he’s getting away with it.

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