When Michael Gazzarato took a job that required him to sign hundreds of affidavits in a single day, he had one demand for his employer: a much better pen.
Lisa Krantz for The New York Times
Linda Almonte of San Antonio has filed a wrongful termination suit against JPMorgan Chase, where she flagged defects in a portfolio of debt Chase was trying to sell.
Luke Sharrett/The New York Times
In July, the Federal Trade Commission, led by Jon Leibowitz, issued a report critical of the debt-collection system, saying banks were selling account information that can be riddled with errors.
“They tried to get me to do it with a Bic, and I wasn’t going — I wasn’t having it,” he said. “It was bad when I had to use the plastic Papermate-type pen. It was a nightmare.”
The complaint could have come from any of the autograph marathoners in the recent mortgage foreclosure mess. But Mr. Gazzarato was speaking at a deposition in a 2007 lawsuit against Asset Acceptance, a company that buys consumer debts and then tries to collect.
His job was to sign affidavits, swearing that he had personally reviewed and verified the records of debtors — a time-consuming task when done correctly.
Banks have been under siege in recent weeks for widespread corner-cutting in the rush to process delinquent mortgages. The accusations have stirred outrage and set off investigations by attorneys general across the country, prompting several leading banks to temporarily cease foreclosures.
But lawyers who defend consumers in debt-collection cases say the banks did not invent the headless, assembly-line approach to financial paperwork. Debt buyers, they say, have been doing it for years.
“The difference is that in the case of debt buyers, the abuses are much worse,” says Richard Rubin, a consumer lawyer in Santa Fe, N.M.
“At least when it comes to mortgages, the banks have the right address, everyone agrees about the interest rate. But with debt buyers, the debt has been passed through so many hands, often over so many years, that a lot of time, these companies are pursuing the wrong person, or the charges have no lawful basis.”
The debt in these cases — typically from credit cards, auto loans, utility bills and so on — is sold by finance companies and banks in a vast secondary market, bundled in huge portfolios, for pennies on the dollar. Debt buyers often hire collectors to commence a campaign of insistent letters and regular phone calls. Or, in a tactic that is becoming increasingly popular, they sue.
Nobody knows how many debt-collection affidavits are filed each year, but a report by the nonprofit Legal Aid Society found that in New York City alone more than 450,000 were filed by debt buyers, from January 2006 to July 2008, yielding more than $1.1 billion in judgments and settlements.
Problems with this torrent of litigation are legion, according to the Federal Trade Commission, led by Jon Leibowitz. The agency issued a report on the subject, “Repairing a Broken System,” in July. In some instances, banks are selling account information that is riddled with errors.
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.
Analysts say that affidavit-signers at debt-buying companies appear to have little choice but to take at face value the few facts typically provided to them — often little more than basic account information on a computer screen.
That was made vividly clear during the deposition last year of Jay Mills, an employee of a subsidiary of SquareTwo Financial (then known as Collect America), a debt-buying company in Denver.
“So,” asked Dale Irwin, the plaintiff’s lawyer, using shorthand for Collect America, “if you see on the screen that the moon is made of green cheese, you trust that CACH has investigated that and has determined that in fact, the moon is made of green cheese?”
“Yes,” Mr. Mills replied.
Given the volume of affidavits, even perfunctory research seems impossible. Cherie Thomas, who works for Asta Funding, a debt buyer in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., said in a 2007 deposition that she had signed 2,000 affidavits a day. With a half-hour for lunch and two brief breaks, that’s roughly one affidavit every 13 seconds.
By DAVID SEGAL
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