By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Cunningham knew he had a good enough case to file a lawsuit against the debt collection agency, and for his first lawsuit, he decided to enlist the help of a lawyer. Two months later, he had a check in his hand for $1,000.
"It's like discovering fire," says Cunningham, thumbing through the stack of lawsuit papers on his table.
He immediately started devouring as much information as he could about the three chief federal laws that protect consumers from collectors: the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). In the next four years, Cunningham accused debt collectors of misrepresenting the amount he owed (an FDCPA violation that entitles a consumer to collect up to $1,000). He sued over prerecorded and auto-dialed calls to his cellular phone (a TCPA violation worth up to $1,500 per call). He also filed complaints that agencies failed to investigate his claims that his credit file contains inaccurate information, a breach of the Fair Credit Reporting Act worth up to $1,000 per violation. All told, he filed 15 other lawsuits in federal court without the help of a lawyer, earning himself settlements totaling more than $20,000.
"Most people hear about the abuses that debt collectors do, but you just didn't hear about the second part of it, where people sue the collectors," he says.
Cunningham is one of thousands of hounded debtors who are trading in their paralyzing fears and learning to stand up for themselves. Americans as a whole owe some $2.5 trillion in consumer debt, according to the Federal Reserve, a figure that doesn't include home mortgages. Nearly four in five Americans have credit cards and half carry a balance, according to the Obama administration.
In 2008, the Federal Trade Commission, the nation's consumer protection agency, received more than 78,000 complaints against third-party debt collectors, 8,000 more than in 2007, and early numbers for 2009 indicate the growth will double. While the FTC gets the bulk of consumer complaints, today more consumers are fighting back with their own lawsuits than ever before. In 2009, nearly 10,000 cases under FDCPA, FCRA or TCPA statutes were filed around the country, mostly in federal courts. That's a 50 percent increase from 2008, and an 83 percent growth from 2007.
A cottage industry has sprung up to counter the flood of cases. Two new companies now offer the credit and collection industries databases of repeat plaintiffs filing under the FDCPA. The companies, FDCPA Case Listing Service LLC and WebRecon, offer something akin to a background check for collection agencies. For example, if an agency received a delinquent account belonging to Cunningham, it could run his name through a database and learn he's a repeat litigant; then the agency could either close his account or sue him first.
Back in his dim living room, Cunningham returns to the pile of paperwork on the table. His soft voice gets bolder when he recounts his war stories with the collection industry. His 15 lawsuits include one filed in federal court against Alliance One, a third-party agency collecting on behalf of Verizon. Alliance One added a $50 collection fee and misrepresented the debt he owed Verizon, he says, which is an unfair practice under FDCPA. Another lawsuit was over the collection of an outstanding bill from Time Warner. The collection agency, Advantage Cable Services, failed to post a surety bond required by the state of Texas in order to collect debts here. Plus, after telling them to stop calling his cellular phone with automated calls, they continued, so he sued and won around $3,500, the industry standard for many consumer rights violations. (Collection agencies frequently settle such lawsuits because that's cheaper than taking them to trial.)
His debt with Time Warner hasn't gone away, and he's in the middle of his biggest FDCPA violation lawsuit ever, demanding upward of $200,000 from the current collection agency.
Debtors, either because they feel morally obligated or because they don't know their options, get backed into a corner by their creditors and believe they have to repay their debts, he says. Not so with Cunningham. "I don't have to do anything but stay black and die," he says, a small, smug smile on his lips.
Cunningham wasn't always such a stickler.
As a kid growing up in Detroit, family time meant gathering around the living room table to play stock market board games. His mother was a registered nurse, and his father worked for 25 years as a computer engineer for Ford. When he was 15, Cunningham met his "first millionaire," as he tells it, still wide-eyed. This high school teacher grew wealthy off the then-booming real estate market of the mid-'90s. "He accomplished it through business and not sports," he says. "For me, that was where the light first went on."
Cunningham, a high school athlete, dreamed of making millions playing pro football, but he was accepted to U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where a degree would give him a more grounded back-up plan. The economics major also sought out an additional perk unique to West Point: stipends and absurdly low-interest loans. In his junior year, in 2002, Cunningham took out the maximum amount for a loan and dumped the $25,000 into the booming stock market.