Lenders Use a New Dirty Trick to Jail You For Small Debts

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Debt collectors can call you, hound you and make you feel like a lowlife, but here in America, they can’t throw you in jail over your unpaid bills. Or can they? A sneaky tactic called “body attachment” is a new twist on this ultimate form of intimidation by creditors, and people who have committed no greater offense than managing their finances poorly are finding themselves thrown in jail with hardened criminals. 

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that debtors in St. Louis County are being preyed upon by payday lenders and the collection agencies to which they sell their debts. Those lenders and agencies are then using the taxpayer-funded court system to put the screws to people who owe money.

Here’s how it works: The creditor goes to court and gets a judgement against the debtor. In many cases, this action is successful only because the debtor never shows up to defend him or herself, sometimes because they’ve been the victim of “sewer service” and never received the paperwork telling them when to show up to court.

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Once the creditor has obtained this judgment, they ask the judge for an “examination.” In theory, this process is intended to assess whether or not the indebted person has bank accounts or other assets that can be seized to pay their debts. The Post-Dispatch says creditors are exploiting this process, filing multiple requests for examinations that force people to return to court over and over. And if they don’t appear in court, then the creditor asks for a “body attachment,” which forces the imprisonment of the debtor until the next hearing — or until they cough up bail money that’s often the same amount as the debt, and often is turned over directly to the creditors.

In this way, the creditor often gets payment on the original debt as well as on all sorts of add-on interest and penalties. One woman profiled in the article was squeezed for $1,250. Her original debt? A $425 payday loan. Another woman was thrown in jail over a $588 debt.

Creditors say they need to use these methods to make sure people show up for their court dates, but not everybody buys it. “Don’t the county police have something better to do?” asks one Legal Aid lawyer interviewed by the newspaper. In neighboring Illinois, governor Pat Quinn signed off on a law last month that prohibits the use of body attachments in debt suits.

(MORE: 5 Steps To Settling Your Debts For Less Than You Owe)

This law is a step in the right direction, but it’s an exception. The scary prospect of being jailed over a three-figure debt isn’t limited to Missouri. An investigation by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul found that a growing number of creditors have gotten judges to issue arrest warrants to people who owe as little as $250.

For people in debt, the main lesson is to pay attention to any notices you receive about court appearances, and make sure you respond and show up as necessary. Many people never show up for hearings against them, perhaps out of intimidation, but it’s worth the effort: Those who do come to court often can successfully argue against the debt, since the burden of proof is on the creditor or company bringing the suit to prove that the person owes the amount being sought, and that the creditor has the right to collect the debt.