It was a Friday night a couple of months ago and I was sitting on my couch, waiting on my weekly Chinese food delivery, when the bell rang. My local dumpling joint is pretty diligent, but this nonetheless seemed too fast, as I had only ordered minutes earlier. Somewhat startled, I walked downstairs and cracked the door enough for a peek, only to find an ominous-looking middle-aged white dude holding something other than fortune cookies.
“Are you Chris Faraone?”
He then handed me an envelope, his mug cold like that of soulless sycophant Doug Stamper on the Netflix thriller “House of Cards.” Now insatiably concerned and curious, I jammed my finger in the corner and tore back the gummy lip, anxious to learn what was so important that it couldn’t wait for Monday.
Now comes Plaintiff … and moves this Honorable Court to attach all wages due Defendant, Christopher C Faraone (“Defendant”), from the Trustee, Dig Boston, that are in excess of the statutory limits of Massachusetts General Laws and the United States Codes … Plaintiff further moves … that successive services be allowed as will be necessary to attach wages up to the full amount of the judgment.
If it sounds like the letter was full of legalese and gibberish, that’s because it was. Basically, this company that bought an old debt I was carrying was attempting to seize more than double my initial principle—nearly half my annual Dig salary—directly through my place of employment. I didn’t know it at the time, but about a month before those papers were delivered to my doorstep, District Court Chief Justice Paul Dawley enacted a “plain English” summons for the entire system, which requires that such notices are written in clear language. Mine wasn’t though; it took three phone calls and nearly an hour the following week to find out in which building and courtroom I was due on the assigned date buried in their vague correspondence.
There were other critical things that I was still deep in the dark about on the night when the constable came uninvited to my home. Most important was that, unbeknownst to me, I had been sued for a credit card debt that I accrued nearly a decade ago. It was sold off to a company in New Hampshire, perhaps the same folks who’d harassed and threatened me by phone over this matter in the late aughts. I may not have known about their lawsuit, which I lost on a default judgment in West Roxbury District Court in 2013, but I did know that the debt was out there, and had on multiple occasions asked people attempting to collect for a specific breakdown of initial owed and paid amounts.
Suspecting that something was fishy, after being served, I began to research my rights as a debtor. According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Debt Collection Regulations, among other things, collectors aren’t supposed to “visit your home at times other than your normal waking hours.” Even if it was acceptable to interrupt my weekly Szechuan tradition, and even if Friday night is adequately “normal” and “waking,” it appears the aforementioned agency additionally engaged in other forbidden practices. Among them:
- They called me on my cell phone, which is my home phone, more than twice in a seven-day period, as well as more than twice in a 30-day period at my former place of employment.
- Collectors phoned me after I requested that they not call. Furthermore, I was not able to ask them in writing to stop calling, since I was not made aware of their address.
- On several occasions, they called me without initially identifying the reason for their call.
- Through their actions, these collectors alerted, however inadvertently, everyone from my friends, neighbors, and relatives, to various employers about my debt, and without my written consent.
The list goes on. Creditors are supposed to allow you to inspect documents on which they are relying to prove that you owe the debt being collected, which my tormentors did not. They also appear to have gone out of their way to avoid letting me know that I was being sued; though I have been living in my current apartment since 2013, they have been serving me at a former residence, and even labeled correspondence to that address on the day that the constable came to my home.
None of that’s super important though. Not for anybody other than me at least, and so I’ll focus the remainder of this rant on helping people in a similar situation. After learning about the judgment against me, I went to the district court in West Roxbury and pulled all of the paperwork on my case. Representing myself pro se, I then filed a motion to have the default removed on account of the proceedings happening behind my back, and that’s around the time that I discovered research on this matter exactly by Northeastern University journalism students. Published in the Boston Globe on March 28, their report found that 90 percent of the nearly 2 million debtors sued in Mass between 2004 and 2013 lost by default. Additionally, they reported that “attorneys with the Volunteer Lawyers Project found evidence that some civil claims appear to have been sent to defendants’ old addresses.” You don’t say.
In the interest of paying forward the favor done for me by said writers and researchers, I’m happy to share my experience in this struggle. At this juncture, I’m hoping for a fair arrangement that accounts for the harassment I’ve endured throughout this process, and it looks as if I may prevail. Last week, a judge allowed for my motion to remove the default, which means that my Dig wages are safe for now. And there’s more. Promisingly, while the consumer protections noted above were written for small claims court, and don’t currently apply in the district system in which I was sued, Chief Justice Dawley is now seeking changes to protect Mass residents in that regard.
Considering that more than a million people in the commonwealth, myself included, have already been run over by a process that unfairly favors unscrupulous bill collectors, such decisions, along with any spread of information, could lead to some overdue justice around here. To catch a creditor.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.