The Major Characters

Interesting Stats

The Lingo of Debt Collectors

  Why I Wrote This Book

            It all began with a call from my mom – seriously.

            She told me that she’d been getting calls from a debt collector who was demanding $200 for a charge on a store credit card.  "He told me to pay up immediately or he'd ruin my credit rating," my mother recalled.  It was a groundless claim.  Total hogwash.  My mom pays her bills before they’re due.  If she were a country, she’d have a credit rating on par with Luxembourg.  Anyway, my mom called up the store – hoping to rectify the situation – but got nowhere.  The store had, apparently, had sold off the debt.  Meanwhile, the collector called her everyday at work, harassing and threatening her.  My mother eventually acquiesced and paid him $200.  "It didn't owe him the money, but I wanted him to stop calling, and I didn't want to risk a problem with my credit rating," my mother said.

            What kind of crazy hustle was this?

            Not that crazy, as it turns out – because this is how consumer debts are often handled in the United States.   Such scenarios are prevalent enough that, in 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stated in a report: “When accounts are transferred to debt collectors, the accompanying information often is so deficient that the collectors seek payment from the wrong consumer or demand the wrong amount from the correct consumer.”     

            Many consumers assume that when they receive a call about an unpaid debt—from Bank of America, or Verizon, or Aaron’s Furniture Rental—they are actually speaking with an official from that company. Not so. The original creditor has often written off that debt as a loss years before and sold it at a fraction of its value to speculators who hope to collect on it and turn a tidy profit. Much has been said and written about the subprime mortgage crisis and how risky loans were issued, bundled, spliced, diced, and sold. Far less has been written about the enormous quantity of consumer debt that is bought, bundled, and sold each year; those who trade in such debt call it “paper” and they typically buy it and sell it for pennies on the dollar.

            My mother’s story peaked my interest in this subject matter and, in the fall of 2010, I wrote a long profile about a debt collector in the New Yorker magazine.  (You can read the article, PAY UP, by clicking here.)  The story is about a former cocaine dealer from Buffalo, New York, who tries to make a go of it in the grimy world of debt collections.  The main character, Jimmy, is surprisingly sympathetic.  He is a single dad who is trying to make an honest living and provide for his kids.  He is just barely getting by.      

            One night, after work, Jimmy confessed to me that his business was on the brink of going bust.  "I got two hundred fucking dollars in the bank, and payroll is tomorrow," he told me. I asked him what he was going to do.  "Everything be all right," he said finally. "I think I'm just telling myself that right now because I'm in a bad fucking place, bro. I do a job that's hated by everybody and anybody on both sides of the fence, and it ain't even doing that well, man. I got people that's depending on me. My mama, my kids and shit, and even these employees, man. And every day I be just trying to think of how to keep shit afloat, bro. And wondering when they going to come knocking and shut shit down, man. You know what I mean? And I hold my head so high that people don't see the pain."

            He said he didn't have to be broke. He could pick up the phone and have "ten keys"—or kilos—of cocaine in a minute. But he vowed this was something he was not going to do. Jimmy said he wasn't sure if he would even have the cash to take his kids to the movies that weekend. "They deserve to go see Shrek tomorrow, man," he told me. "My son has got the highest average in the fourth grade. I got good kids, man." 

            After this article came out, I received emails from around the country from people who told me that they were moved by Jimmy’s story.  I also got a call from Brad Pitt’s production company – Plan B – which wanted to develop the story into a television series.  I was incredulous, but Plan B was serious, and several months later I agreed to go back to Buffalo and show the screenwriter around.  I am from Buffalo – my dad and his wife, Betty, still live there – and so we stayed with them.  I set up a number of meetings for the screenwriter, mainly with people whom I had interviewed for my story. 

            The most memorable of these meetings was with a guy named Aaron Siegel, who was a former banker, and who now invested in “distressed consumer debt” – basically unpaid credit card bills.  At this meeting, Aaron brought along one of his most trusted associates, a former armed robber named Brandon Wilson.  Brandon worked as Aaron’s most valued “debt broker,” buying and selling portfolios on Aaron’s behalf.  He also served as his emissary to the collection industry’s many unsavory precincts.  That evening, the two of them told me a story about how someone had stolen debt from them – which was just data encrypted on spreadsheets – and tried to collect on their debt.   Brandon then set out on a quest to resolve the matter.  He headed down to Buffalo with a car full of his associates, mainly ex-cons, some of them armed and all of them determined to help fix the problem.  Their goal was simple: rescue the stolen accounts.

            From the moment that I heard this story, I knew that it was pure nonfiction gold.  It did not need to be transmuted into fiction for television.  It needed to be told as a true tale.  And that was the moment that this book was born.  I spent the next two years hanging out with Aaron and Brandon – following them from Maine to Las Vegas and many places in-between.  BAD PAPER chronicles these adventures.