ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Getting Sued Over Debt: Readers Tell Their Stories

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.

Kevin Evans was shocked to discover early this year that his credit card lender had garnished his wages. Twice a month, whether he could afford it or not, 25 percent of his pay — the legal limit — would go to his debt, which had ballooned with interest and fees to over $15,000. Read more about Kevin's experience in our story on the millions of Americans losing income through wage garnishment.

Debt collection has undergone an aggressive makeover in recent years, with more creditors and collectors going to court to win judgments against consumers, often seizing hundreds of dollars from each paycheck. To find out more about these seizures, we asked ADP, the nation’s largest payroll services provider, for information on the 2013 payroll records for 13 million employees.

ADP found that more than one in 10 employees in the prime working ages of 35 to 44 had their wages garnished in 2013. Roughly half of these debtors, unsurprisingly, owed child support. But a sizable number had their earnings docked for consumer debts, such as credit cards, medical bills and student loans.

How do people deal with collectors who take them to court? Recently we asked our readers, and got dozens of responses from people who had been sued over various debts, including several from people who said they were shocked when they were aggressively pursued over unpaid medical debts. Below are some their stories.

Have you ever been sued over an old debt? Help us investigate debt collectors by sharing your story.

John Michigan

Debt type: Credit card Wages garnished? Yes

A debt collector sued John in 2009 for more than $10,000 owed on a credit card, but didn’t have documentation to prove that they owned his debt, he said. It’s “been a major financial hurdle we are still dealing with.”

Michele Michigan

Debt type: Medical Wages garnished? Yes

Michele says she was sued over a $900 hospital bill. “It was a real blow, emotionally… No other industry could charge consumers an arbitrary amount that the consumer can’t approve before receiving the service. I felt like a tiny bug with a large corporation trying to suck the life out of me. I fell behind in payments to the hospital and it was handed over to a collection attorney. I made monthly payments and didn’t make them fast enough for the collection firm. I think I was behind by $50 when they served me.”

David Colorado

Debt type: Medical Wages garnished? No

David says he was sued over a $1,500 medical bill that his insurance company said it would pay. “They said they would handle the fees, and not to worry about it. Another 6 months or so goes by and I receive a knock on my door that I am being sued for $1,500. I contacted my insurance company right away and they stated that they would never have covered anything like that. I then contacted the law firm handling the case and they said I had 48 hours to pay the debt, or I would need hire a lawyer and meet them in court. I ended up having to pay the $1,500 that day over the phone with my credit card. I have recovered financially since then, but I have not been to a doctor or dentist in the past 8 years, mostly because I’m worried the insurance will drop it and I’ll end up in the same situation.”

Stephanie Illinois

Debt type: Medical Wages garnished? Yes

Stephanie says a debt collector sued her over her son’s medical bill. It was “Shocking. I was unemployed, and we couldn’t pay the bill for one of my son’s pediatric appointments. They turned us over to collections, and we were served shortly after.”

Terri Indiana

Debt type: Credit Card Wages garnished? Yes

Terri said her family piled up credit card debt to make ends meet between her husband’s construction jobs. The couple had some success with a debt management plan, but fell behind again when her husband lost another job, and they were eventually sued. “I was always trying to negotiate a payment that was doable for us, but they always pushed for more than we could afford, so after a few payments, we’d miss one when some other crisis came up. I ended up paying them $500, and agreeing to pay $150 a month even though I knew that was too much. What other option was there? We’d paid them about $800 since March, and then we missed another payment and they froze our bank account — basically taking our money for our mortgage payment… I feel like we’re living in this constant precarious position and our family is being squeezed out of existence.”

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