Over the past month, the I-Team has been digging through thousands of court files to investigate debt collection.
There are ways people can protect themselves.
Melissa Carilli of Coventry didn’t just agree to meet the I-Team to talk about debt collectors. She brought proof that they’re after her.
“When you get this much mail in one week, you can't cipher through,” she said. “What do I pay first? What's more important?”
Carilli’s trouble started when she said her son had an accident in 2010. That was followed by her husband getting sick and surgery for herself.
With a high deductible health plan, she quickly fell behind.
“You know I work one, sometimes two jobs, my husband works two jobs, we're trying our best, but at the end of the day when you're looking at my daughter's birthday coming up and do I buy her a gift or send $5 to this person or that person?” Carilli said. “My husband said it, ‘it's like filling a bucket with a spoon. It's never going to be full.’”
The I-Team has been looking at people in her situation. With the help of newsroom assistant Sarah Dahlstrom and I-Team intern Darren Ayotte, 10,994 collections cases were dug into, all of them filed in Connecticut.
The I-Team looked at who’s suing and how the cases were resolved.
It found that most of the cases were filed by what a person would probably expect. It’s banks for things like credit cards and defaulted loans, and debt collectors.
The next biggest group surprised the I-Team. It was utilities.
The Water Pollution Control Authority in Bridgeport is the plaintiff in a 665 of the cases the I-Team reviewed.
The only other major group found was health care providers.
That’s where Carilli said she became in trouble.
The I-Team asked her about getting a lawyer.
“I haven't because that costs money,” she said. “Because I don't have money to pay the bills, how would I have money to pay an attorney?”
Most people believe that to walk into a lawyer’s office automatically costs them thousands of dollars. However, there are a lot of great attorneys who handle such matters who have different ways to charge clients.
Attorney Sarah Poriss said she built her entire Hartford law practice on helping people facing debt collection or foreclosure. She told the I-Team that people often do what Carilli did and ignore the lawsuits. That, she said, can be a costly mistake.
“Sometimes the case has advanced and they don't realize there's a case going on,” Poriss said.
If a judgement enters against the client and the client doesn’t pay, the creditor can ask the court for an execution, or an order allowing them to either garnish wages or send a state marshal to seize bank accounts.
The I-Team found that 615 debt collection cases ended in an execution last year.
Banks and debt collectors took the harsh approach more than other plaintiffs. However, what really stunned the I-Team was that of the 615 cases with an execution, only four of the defendants had a lawyer.
A personal appearance with the court was filed in 123 cases.
The rest lost the case and lost money without even showing up.
“If you defend the suit, if you show up, if you tell the court, if you tell opposing counsel that you care, that you want to work something out, usually judgment won't enter against you and you won't end up with a wage execution or a bank execution while the case is still pending,” Poriss said.
Poriss said many people sued in these cases don’t know that they should call the lawyer who sued them. She said often, debt collection lawyers get a percentage of what they collect and sometimes they’ll offer big time deals to resolve a case.
“I usually bring my client to the table with a dollar figure, I always approach opposing counsel and say my client has this much and this is when they can pay,” she said. “So there's always a conversation to be had.”
Poriss urged people to find a lawyer to take their case. At the bare minimum, file a personal appearance. Either way, make sure someone calls the other side to see if some negotiating might resolve with a payment that can be afforded.
It has to be better than the method Carilli has been using.
“I have a box, as the box fills up I take them out front,” she explained. “I have a burn pile. I burn them, because I don't want anyone to steal my identity, not that it's worth anything these days.”
After speaking with the I-Team Carilli said she’s going to contact Poriss to see if it’s possible to straighten things out.
The I-Team also asked Poriss to demonstrate how to look up a case on the state judicial branch’s website. Scroll through the videos at the top of this story to watch her step-by-step instructions or look here:
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