Dead Soul is a Debt Collector
Full article in WSJ here:
Martha Kunkle has come back to life.
She died in 1995. Yet her signature later appeared on thousands of affidavits submitted by one of the nation’s largest debt collectors, Portfolio Recovery Associates Inc., in lawsuits filed against borrowers.
Back From the Dead
Details about Martha Kunkle, whose name appeared on thousands of affidavits used to collect credit-card debts
- Died in 1995
- Name was used by employees who worked with her daughter
- Minnesota’s attorney general is investigating numerous buyers and collectors of consumer debt for falsifying affidavits
Some regulators complain that the use of Ms. Kunkle’s name reflects an epidemic of mass-produced, sloppy and inaccurate documentation in the debt-collection industry. Lawsuits have surged as more borrowers fall behind on payments and collection firms turn to courts to get what they are owed.
After being sued for fraud, Portfolio Recovery Associates decided in early 2008 that any documents bearing Ms. Kunkle’s name had “defects” and shouldn’t be used when trying to collect debts, a company spokeswoman said.
Last July, though, lawyers for Portfolio Recovery Associates sought a court judgment in a lawsuit against a Seattle woman for $2,892.10 in credit-card debt and interest that she allegedly owed. It was a cookie-cutter case, except for one thing: To vouch for the debt’s validity, the Norfolk, Va., company included an affidavit signed by Martha Kunkle.
The spokeswoman said the document was “inadvertently used by our outside counsel” because of “human error,” adding that the suit was dropped later “upon review of the case.”
The company said Ms. Kunkle’s name isn’t on any other affidavits submitted to judges since early 2008 by Portfolio Recovery Associates or outside lawyers who handle most of its debt-collection cases.
“When you see corner-cutting like this, it’s alarming,” Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said about the Kunkle case. Ms. Swanson is investigating numerous buyers and collectors of consumer debt for falsifying affidavits. A spokeswoman for the company, the second-largest debt buyer in the U.S. by revenue, said the company is unaware of the investigation and declined further comment.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said he wants to investigate whether Martha Kunkle’s name appears on any affidavits used to collect debt in the state of Missouri.
Some judges say robo-signing, in which affidavits are signed without fully reviewing underlying documentation, is more common in debt-collection cases than foreclosures. In July, the Federal Trade Commission recommended that state regulators require the disclosure of “more information” by debt collectors and buyers, concluding that they might be relying on erroneous or incomplete paperwork when suing to recover money.
“I’ve watched and wanted to tell defendants in these suits to demand proof of the underlying debt because that proof is so often flimsy,” said Jeffrey Lipman, a magistrate judge in Polk County, Iowa, which includes Des Moines, the state’s capital. Court rules give him little leeway to instruct borrowers in court.
Large debt collectors such as Portfolio Recovery Associates and publicly traded rivals Encore Capital Group Inc. and Asset Acceptance Capital Corp. frequently buy delinquent accounts in bulk. Information about each debt sometimes is little more than a line in a spreadsheet with the borrower’s name and amount owed, according to lawyers who represent borrowers. As of Sept. 30, Portfolio Recovery Associates had $91.5 million in revenue from lawsuits it won, or 34% of its overall revenue.
In 2008, Judy Montoya, an employee at Portfolio Recovery Associates, testified in a debt-collection suit filed by the company that its “legal specialists” sign as many as 200 affidavits a day. The company’s spokeswoman said such employees sign an average of 100 affidavits a day and are guided by “a very rigorous set of policies and procedures.” Ms. Montoya couldn’t be reached to comment.
Questions about Martha Kunkle first popped up in 2008 after her name appeared in thousands of affidavits generated by a unit of Providian National Corp. The credit-card issuer sold an undisclosed number of delinquent account balances to Portfolio Recovery Associates and other debt collectors, which then sued the borrowers to collect the debt.
Most of the debt was racked up before 2004. Providian was acquired in 2005 by Washington Mutual Inc. The Seattle company’s banking operations failed in 2008 and were sold to J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., which declined to comment.
Concerns about Ms. Kunkle’s affidavits were raised in 2008 by lawyers for Jeanie Cole, one of thousands of Montana residents sued by Portfolio Recovery Associates to collect debts. After failing to locate Ms. Kunkle, lawyers for Ms. Cole interviewed her daughter, who worked at Providian in a document-processing division.
The daughter testified in a deposition that other Providian employees used the name Martha Kunkle when signing affidavits. Along with other employees, the daughter was responsible for signing affidavits. After countersuing Portfolio Recovery Associates for alleged violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Ms. Cole was the lead plaintiff in a 2008 federal-court suit in Montana alleging the company targeted 16,000 borrowers using “false and misleading” affidavits.
Last year, Portfolio Recovery Associates agreed to settle the Montana suit. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but the company’s spokeswoman said it admitted no wrongdoing. She wouldn’t say how many borrowers were sued using documents signed by Martha Kunkle. Ms. Cole is prohibited from commenting under terms of the settlement.
“I would like to reinforce that these were not Portfolio Recovery Associates affidavits,” the spokeswoman said. The company said it moved quickly to alert its outside lawyers that Kunkle documents shouldn’t be relied on when trying to collect debts.
The lawsuit against the Seattle woman included an October 2006 affidavit in which “Martha Kunkle, Designated Agent” for Providian, swore “to the best of my knowledge” that the amount owed “reflects a true and correct accounting of the cardholder’s credit card account.”
Robert Scanlon, the lawyer who filed the suit for Portfolio Recovery Associates, wouldn’t comment on the case or how long he has sued borrowers on behalf of the company. The borrower also declined to comment.