95% of those lawsuits probably go unanswered, so the debt collectors end up with a judgment for the debt plus interest (and possibly other—unlawful—charges) plus attorney fees and costs. Then, they find the debtors’ bank accounts and employers and start collecting by garnishing wages, seizing funds from bank accounts, and worse.
If you are a tenant, the system works roughly the same, although landlords do not usually have quite so many people to sue.
So what do you do if you find out someone is suing you?
Service of process
First of all, you may not have been served properly. However, this does not mean you can ignore the lawsuit. This is very important. Debt collectors in particular may not bother to find a correct and up-to-date address for you. However, the lawsuit may still be in progress even though you are not participating.
Proper service means (1) handing you a copy of the summons and complaint, (2) leaving a copy with a person “of suitable age and discretion” at your last-known address, or (3) various more involved ways that debt collectors will rarely bother to use. Ducking service is not a very good idea. It usually doesn’t work, for starters, and the debt collector may just go and carry on with the lawsuit anyway.
Answering a summons and complaint
If you do get served with a summons and complaint, find one lying on your doorstep, or hear about a lawsuit against you in some other way, you have twenty days to respond. A response is not simply calling the lawyer whose signature appears at the bottom of the documents. A valid response probably means a written answer admitting or denying the allegations in the complaint, delivered to the plaintiff’s attorney.
Answering is a delicate business. If you do not make certain defenses (like improper service of the summons and complaint or expiration of the statute of limitations), you lose the right to make them. Now is the time to talk to a lawyer. Where do you find one? Start looking for a consumer rights lawyer right here.
Finding a consumer lawyer
Let’s dispel a common misconception: It doesn’t cost anything to call a lawyer. Ask right away if they give free consultations. Most lawyers do.
Let’s dispel another: It doesn’t cost $10,000+ to hire a lawyer. Debt buyer defense is rarely work-intensive, although it will take up some time. I am aware of several consumer lawyers, including myself, who take debt collection defense cases based on a percentage of the alleged debt.
But here is the most important part: call a lawyer as soon as you get served with a lawsuit or find out you are being sued. If you do not answer, you lose. You will have no right or opportunity to challenge the debt obligation, the amount of the debt, the additional interest, charges, or attorney fees, or anything else about the debt.
So call that lawyer.