Debt Collection and Shame

The Consumerist is one of my favorite websites. Today it has an article about a guy who wrote a check to the Girl Scouts for cookies, and the check subsequently bounced. You can find it here. Basically, the article outlines how the original $42.00 dishonored check has morphed into an $800 collection account.

Now this post isn’t about how that new amount is likely illegally inflated and therefore actionable under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (though I have absolutely no doubt that even someone like me who has to take off his shoes and socks to count could take one look at the account ledger and identify some sort of improperly charged interest or fee.) Instead, I want to challenge the notion that just because someone has an account in collections, doesn’t mean he or she is necessarily irresponsible or a “deadbeat”…even when the genesis of that account may be valid.

Having done collections for three years, myself, I can tell you that the most effective method of collecting on debts is shame. Making someone feel shameful about their collection account is more effective than threatening them with a lawsuit, more effective than ruining their credit, and nearly as effective as (illegally) threatening them with arrest. Shame is a pressure that is not only applied by the collectors calling on the phone, but also by society as a whole by the way in which we talk about someone who is in debt and unable to pay his or her bills. The power of shame is so strong, that Congress made it illegal to disclose the existence of a collection account to a third-party when they passed the FDCPA in 1977.

I sat across a lot of conference room tables from debtors when I would go to court to collect on debts, and I literally can’t recall a single one who was “gaming the system” or came across as a dead-beat. The levels of shame and angst and disarray they were experiencing was palpable. Collectors not only use this, they take advantage of these feelings of shame and prey upon consumers with it . So while the case of the $42 turning into $800 is a little unusual, I doubt we would have heard about it if it had only transformed into $200. Mostly because this guy, or someone in his situation, would have simply paid the amount, regardless of its validity. Because, hey, it’s not like he wants to look like a deadbeat.


Dave represents clients in Minnesota on a range of legal issues, including civil litigation, business ventures, and creditor relations. He also has expertise raising capital to finance David v. Goliath cases. (Yes, pun intended!) Dave can be reached via email at