Paying consumer debts is basically optional in the United States

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects the people who need it least.

Cory Doctorow


A blasted wasteland. Three young men who have been terribly beaten cluster in the center of the frame. Looming out of the left is a thug brandishing a club, holding out his hand.

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The vast majority of America’s debt collection targets $500–2,000 credit card debts. It is a filthy business, operated by lawless firms who hire unskilled workers drawn from the same economic background as their targets, who routinely and grotesquely flout the law, but only when it comes to the people with the least ability to pay.

America has fairly robust laws to protect debtors from sleazy debt-collection practices, notably the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which has been on the books since 1978. The FDCPA puts strict limits on the conduct of debt collectors, and offers real remedies to debtors when they are abused.

But for FDPCA provisions to be honored, they must be understood. The people who collect these debts are almost entirely untrained. The people they collected the debts from are likewise in the dark. The only specialized expertise debt-collection firms concern themselves with are a series of gotcha tricks and semi-automated legal shenanigans that let them take money they don’t deserve from people who can’t afford to pay it.

There’s no better person to explain this dynamic than @patio11, a finance and technology expert whose Bits About Money newsletter is absolutely essential reading. No one breaks down the internal operations of the finance sector like McKenzie. His latest edition, “Credit card debt collection,” is a fantastic read:

McKenzie describes how a debt collector who mistook him for a different PJ McKenzie and tried to shake him down for a couple hundred bucks, and how this launched him into a life as a volunteer advocate for debtors who were less equipped to defend themselves from collectors than he was.