Debtors' Prison Makes A Return In Some States


I’ve long said to you as an article of faith that there is no debtors’ prison in the United States. However, I now have to eat my words because of a dangerous new trend where people are being thrown in jail over unpaid credit card debt that they may not even owe.

When you are contacted by a collection agency about a debt that is either not yours; was yours but has been paid off; or is outside the statute of limitations in your state, you cannot ignore that letter or phone call.

The Wall Street Journal  reports that more than one-third of U.S. states allow borrowers who can’t pay a debt to be jailed. Capital One is among the companies having people locked up for not being able to pay their credit card.

Again, the laws on this vary by state. Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington State are among the states named in the Journal article where debtors have been locked up.

The scary thing is that this is even happening to people who don’t owe a debt. As the Journal writes, “Arrest warrants generally can be issued if a borrower defies a court order to repay a debt or doesn’t show up in court.”

Meanwhile, The Orlando Sentinel reports that Florida’s courts are being clogged with civil suits against people over debts that again may or may not legitimately be theirs. There’s now a 50-state investigation into so-called robomill operations where collectors auto-sign masses of suspect documentation and then use those documents to bring about the civil suits.

Here’s key advice you need to know to protect yourself:

  • If you are either served court papers or contacted by a collector by phone or in writing, you must show up in court (in the first instance) or answer by certified mail return receipt requested (in the second instance.)
  • You have 2 basic defenses: Either you know the debt is not yours, in which case you ask them to prove otherwise; or if it is yours and it’s past the statute of limitations, you tell them that it’s no longer legally enforceable in your state.

Clark Howard