By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Everybody was making easy money," he recalls, and the young cadet wanted a shot at making even more. He spent hours on his dial-up Internet connection learning money-making strategies that capitalized on the cheap and easy credit of the times. By Googling "credit help" or "increase credit score," he landed on message boards on which posters shared how-to tips to boost his credit score and dupe major banks and credit card companies into giving him cards with credit limits around $10,000 and $20,000 at low interest rates. He'd borrow from the cards, invest the money in stocks with payouts higher than his interest rate and pay back the debt with the profits.
Cunningham learned on these boards that the credit card companies, banks and the credit bureaus worked together to determine not only your credit score but how much credit to extend you and at what interest rate.
Cunningham had no problem spending all the money anyone would loan him, but he needed to pay off some of the accrued debt to maintain his credit score. He knew his military loan did not get reported to any of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. So, by paying off his credit card debt with money from that loan, he artificially maintained his credit score and continued to be approved for high credit. Sounds fishy, but Cunningham didn't feel that he was taking advantage of the system, at least not anymore than the next guy or the brokers and bankers at the time.
"It's their system," says Cunningham. "I didn't make the rules. I'm just learning what the rules are."
Cunningham now had more than $100,000 in credit card debt, but he had a lot of money coming in as well. He was a big-time shareholder in one sub-prime lending company, Nova Star Financial, and for three years in a row he saw dividends as high as 20 percent for his investment.
Any money he was making went right back into the system. Those good times, of course, wouldn't last.
Not wanting to miss out on the easy money in real estate buying and selling, he bought two low-income four-plexes in Dallas in 2005, using a mortgage company for the loan. He put no money down, but the interest rate was high.
Then he got burned. The four-plex's seller wasn't completely honest about the occupancy of the properties. Cunningham's scheme disintegrated within six months. He was scrambling to make the mortgage payments at the high interest rate without any tenants. He knew it wouldn't be long until he couldn't make the payments and he would be foreclosed on. Somehow, he didn't despair.
"I remember one day I just got pissed," Cunningham says. "I'm running around trying to keep the ship afloat, and the banks don't care."
Cunningham had called the bank as well as the FBI to report the mortgage fraud committed by the seller, but nobody pursued his case.
"The regulators, the FBI, they don't care. So, why should I care?" he says.
The Dallas properties were foreclosed, and his obsessively maintained credit score seemed wrecked. Cunningham returned to the online credit board for help. This time, however, he wasn't looking to add an artificial shine to his credit score, he was looking for a way out of the ashes. Cunningham discovered a whole other world of consumer-generated knowledge. This was a rogue group of disgruntled consumers who were trying to save themselves and their credit by filing lawsuits when the collection industry screwed up the mechanics of debt reporting and collection. What he found was an instrument not of repair or reconciliation, but of vengeance.
"All the conventional wisdom, all the right people say, 'Pay your bills on time and work with your creditors,'" Cunningham says, recalling his thoughts at the time. Yet he had discovered a new set of people who posted their credit reports on line and their successful lawsuits, showing how much money they won in settlements that simultaneously removed a bad debt from their credit report. "I said, 'Maybe there's another way.' Again, just revolution. I never even thought about it."
The knowledge on these boards originated from consumers testing the boundaries of the credit system through their own experiences. The nature of this information, from the beginning, was a mixture of anarchistic tendencies, vengeance and greed. Now the wisdom of the boards has been distilled into an e-book published in January. Debtsmanship was written by Steven Katz, a former New York debt collector turned consumer advocate, who now lives in Phoenix. In 2005, Katz founded a message board called "Debtorboards," with the slogan "Sue your creditor and win!"
Katz doesn't believe that people are morally obligated to pay back their debts. That notion was invented by debt collectors as a way to beat people into submission, he says. "Bill collectors would love for you to send them a check and then explain to your kids because you have the moral obligation to pay your debt they're not eating this week," he says. "But they don't see the moral obligation to feed your children or yourself.
"People are brainwashed to think that paying a credit card is more important than paying for the necessities of life," Katz says. "If you're in a position where you have to make a choice, my argument is food, clothing and shelter come first... Nobody ever went to hell for not paying a debt."