Help me navigate a debt collection nightmare.
March 2, 2012 12:58 PM   Subscribe

Hive mind, help me navigate a debt collection nightmare. Details inside.

I will first say that yes, I know that if you respond to this question, YANML.
(I am already seeking legal help, but I will not have that opportunity until next week and I value the input of this group)

I’m in the middle of a debt collection nightmare that came to my attention mid last month.

- I live in Cook County, IL

- In February, I was unexpectedly served a Summons and Verified Complaint by an officer who came to my home.

- The lawsuit was filed by a debt collector seeking a judgment for ~$2,000 + court costs and allowable interest for a debt I was not aware of and do not know if it is mine.

- I was able to learn that that the original creditor was a credit card company that I not believe I ever opened an account with. I called that credit card company and was told that they could not tell me anything about the account because it was sold to collections.

- Attached to the complaint was an unsigned photocopy of the ‘original creditors cardmember agreement’. The complaint said it was attached only to support their claims for attorney’s fees and court costs.

- I responded to the complaint by filing an Appearance and an Answer before the deadline last month.

- In my Answer, I simply listed the items within the complaint and indicated that I did not have enough information to Affirm or Deny those items.

- I sent copies of my Appearance and Answer via certified mail to the plaintiff's attorney listed on the Summons.

- I was given a court date for next week and plan to appear. It is Pre Se court, so I will be representing myself.

I have no idea what to expect or what to do next. I really don’t believe that this debt is actually mine and fear the possibility that I might show up to court next week and lose this case just because I don’t fully understand the legal system or what to say to the judge. My hope is that by responding via my answer that “I did not have enough information to Affirm or Deny the items”, that the burden of proof will be on the plaintiff and his attorney. I know that debt collectors will by unpaid debts for pennies on the dollar from credit card companies and then file lawsuits that most people do not respond to (and then lose by default).

Does anyone have any practical advice (besides see a lawyer asap) or anecdotal experience to share that may help me deal with this until I get my legal consultation next week?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This excellent series from the Boston Globe is about debt collection in Massachusetts, but it has good national information about debt collectors in general, and how they are insane in their collection practices.

In summary: don't let them bully you into anything!
posted by Melismata at 1:13 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

So far you have done all the right things.

The plaintiff does have the burden of proof. It has to show that the debt existed and how much it was. The signed application form would be helpful but would not be necessary. The plaintiff could use a statement of account. The key question is whether the statements have your proper address. If it is one of your addresses, it is probably your account.

How do you not know what credit card you had in the past?
posted by yclipse at 1:22 PM on March 2, 2012

the burden of proof will be on the plaintiff and his attorney

Legally, it already is -- but, and this is a big but to be aware of, in civil law the standard of proof is not "beyond a reasonable doubt" but "preponderance of the evidence", which is an easier bar. To combat their considerable advantages you'll need something more than an oral admission of uncertainty -- it's almost not worth showing up if that's all you've got.

First, get your free credit reports at the official US site for this, This may corroborate information about the debt that allows you to be more certain about whether it is or isn't yours. If it isn't, it may turn up other evidence of identity theft, which seems like a reasonable concern here.

It may, however, simply confirm for you that your debt was with one company and transferred to another or ended up somewhere due to a merger.

How do you not know what credit card you had in the past?

Bad news: I'm willing to bet that this was some other household credit account, e.g EZ Carpet Sales and Install or whatnot, that was in actuality a credit account with a big national firm. Retailers and service companies don't like to handle credit themselves anymore, as it's too big a financial risk and imposes lots of management burdens like suing people, so they outsource this part of the operation. You might have signed something in the office that had the retailer's logo on it and the credit company's name in small print. Just a fair heads up.
posted by dhartung at 1:27 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, to finish the first part of my answer, as long as you DO show up, odds are pretty good that the judge will grant a continuance such that you can do more research and/or demand discovery, that is, require the plaintiff to supply you with necessary documentation so that you can prepare a defense.

But ... an attorney would greatly increase your odds of anything at this point.
posted by dhartung at 1:45 PM on March 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

How old is the claimed debt? Most states have statutes of limitations on unsecured debt. You can always argue in court A) This debt is not mine and B) Even if it were mine, the statute of limitations has already expired.
posted by empath at 2:08 PM on March 2, 2012

There are self-help desks in the Daley Center--go there before your court date. You can also contact CARPLS or ILAO for assistance. Even your income is above CARPLS cut-off, they can refer you to attorneys. ILAO has downloadable self-help resources, regardless of income. I don't recall how the help desks work, with regard to income levels.

Judges in that division in Cook County are very happy to grant you a continuance if you say you are seeking an attorney or other assistance. Assuming your hearing is at Daley, get to the Daley Center 30-40 minutes before the time set for your hearing (usually 9:30) so you have time to get through security and time to navigate the elevators and time to check in in the court room. The elevators suck. You will have to cram into an elevator that appears too full or you will not get to your floor on time. The elevators only serve some floors. Floors 17 and 23 are elevator transfer points, IIRC. Go to your courtroom, wait in line (or walk right up) to check in with the clerk. Give her the case number and caption. Take a seat. Eventually, your case will be called. Make sure you wait for a copy of whatever order is entered.

If you're not in the Daley Center, you won't need quite as much time to get to the courtroom, but you will want to get to the courthouse 20-30 minutes beforehand to get through security. Don't bring a laptop. Turn your cellphone OFF--if a judge hears it (even if it's on vibrate) they will confiscate it and you will need a separate courtdate to get it back.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:43 PM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

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