Robo-Signers Aren’t Limited to Foreclosures

The Times finds debt collectors signing up to 2,000 affidavits a day

The New York Times does an excellent job this morning finding a new angle on the robo-signers scandal. It’s a more widespread phenomenon in the financial industry than we knew.

While the foreclosure fraud crisis brought robo-signers into the national spotlight, the Times reports that debt collectors have been doing the same stuff for years, except that, in the words of one lawyer, “The difference is that in the case of debt buyers, the abuses are much worse.”

The paper’s David Segal reports that one robo-signer tore through 2,000 affidavits a day—one every 13 seconds or so. That’s problematic on its face:

More often, essential background information simply is not acquired by debt buyers, in large part because that data adds to the price of each account. But court rules state that anyone submitting an affidavit to a court against a debtor must have proof of that claim — proper documentation of a debt’s origins, history and amount.

Without that information it is hard to imagine how any company could meet the legal standard of due diligence, particularly while churning out thousands and thousands of affidavits a week.

It’s also impossible to imagine how an affiant could swear to the facts of anything 2,000 times a day.

The Times interviews a whistleblower at JPMorgan Chase who says she was fired for bringing concerns about shoddy account records to the attention of management. Chase was selling delinquent debt for 13 cents on the dollar. But the whistleblower says that more than one in five accounts had serious errors, including incorrect balances. She says she was blown off by Chase management and shown the door.

The Chase whistleblower also says the errors involved incorrect addresses and contact information, and the Times uses that to raise a very interesting point:

The majority of lawsuits filed in debt collection cases go unanswered, which is why most end with default judgments — victories for creditors that allow them to use court officers or sheriffs to garnish wages or freeze bank accounts, among other remedies.

There is a persistent argument about why so few consumers respond in these cases. Consumers often know they owe the debt and conclude that fighting about it is pointless, said Barbara Sinsley, general counsel at DBA International, a trade group of debt buyers.

Lawyers for consumers, on the other hand, contend that few debtors ever learn about the legal action until it is too late, often because the process server charged with alerting them never actually delivered a notification. In those instances when a consumer hires a lawyer, the consumer often prevails.

“I’ve lost four and I’ve taken about 5,000 cases,” said Jerry Jarzombek, a consumer lawyer in Fort Worth. “If the case goes to trial, I say to the judge, ‘Your honor, imagine if someone came in here to give eyewitness testimony in a traffic accident case and they didn’t actually see the crash. They just read about it somewhere. Well, this is the same thing.’

Yow. I think we need to see more stories on that.

Good work here by the Times.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.