The Center for Responsible Lending on Thursday released a new study on the extraordinary use of Oregon courts to collect debts from people who may not owe them.
The new information shows that between 2012 and 2016, six companies filed more than 75,000 lawsuits in Oregon courts.
That's about 25 percent of all the civil lawsuits in Oregon filed during those years.
The six companies filing the suits each are in the business of buying consumer debt—think credit cards—that lenders have written off for pennies on the dollar and then trying to collect on it.
But research from the Center for Responsible Lending found that many of those lawsuits lack merit: the consumer either doesn't owe the debt or the debt is not properly documented.
“Incomplete information is common when debt buyers purchase charged-off debt from creditors, and for most debts, no supporting documentation is provided to the debt buyer,” the report says. “In 2013, the FTC found that the information and documentation substantiating the debts purchased by debt buyers was frequently incomplete.”
If the defendant doesn't show up in court, however, judges often award the debt buyers the full amount they are seeking.
“The debt buyer business model is largely dependent on consumers’ inability to defend themselves in court,” the report says. “Debt buyer lawsuits often go uncontested because of failure to properly notify people of the lawsuit or because the clear majority of people simply cannot afford a lawyer.”
The consequences are huge.
“Using the findings from the FTC study on the debt buying industry, Oregon residents owe an estimated $54,127,735 over a three-year period due to default judgments and other easy wins in favor of the six debt buyers studied in this report based on insufficient documentation,” the report says.
In many cases, the people most hurt by debt buyers are already struggling financially. Getting their wages garnished or having liens placed against their property after losing a court case compound the difficulties low-income Oregonians face.
“It should not be possible for debt buyers to win judgments without proving their cases,” said Carlos Garcia, Director of Economic Opportunity at Hacienda CDC. “Having a ‘proof of debt’ standard is a simple solution to a large-scale problem and would prevent debt buyers from abusing consumers with wrongful lawsuits.”