Strike Debt!

Commonly asked questions: Why can’t you buy my debt?

[We get a lot of questions by email, and we do our best to respond to each and every one personally. Though we have a short FAQ on the Rolling Jubilee website, many questions deserve more in-depth responses. We’ve decided to post longer answers to some of the more common questions on this blog, in a regular feature titled ‘Commonly asked questions’. Check back regularly for updates!]

“How do you choose whose debt to buy? / Why can’t you buy my debt?”

Some form of this is far and away our most frequently asked question.  It’s often heartbreaking to read the stories of despair and frustration that accompany these questions.  These stories overwhelmingly affirm the suspicion that crushing debt is very rarely the “fault” of the debtor – most often, their situation is precipitated by unfortunate circumstances far beyond their control, circumstances which could befall any of us.

So why can’t we just pick the “most” awful stories, the most “deserving” victims of the debt system, and buy their debt?  The answer is twofold:

First, as far as we know, this is impossible.  The way the debt buying process works is that essentially anonymous accounts are bundled together into large portfolios and sold as a whole. Before we buy the debt we don’t know whose debt we are purchasing.  In one sense, this is a good thing.  Imagine if debtors information (names, addresses, phone numbers, SSNs, …) was made available without having to buy the portfolio.  This would be a serious breach of privacy. But the reason this is done is not to protect your privacy, but something far more banal: debt collectors – and the firms who sell to them – don’t care who you are. They only care that they’re making a good investment – that, as a whole, the package they’re buying will return more than they paid for it, even though any individual account might not. So debt sellers put together accounts from many sources and wrap them all together, so that debt collectors think they’re buying a package that will have enough accounts worth collecting on.

As a result, there is no way to enroll or sign up for the Jubilee. In effect, the Rolling Jubilee is a somewhat random act of mutual aid.  And that gets to the second reason why we won’t just pick and choose who to buy, even if we could. The Jubilee is meant to help individuals, absolutely, but first and foremost it is designed to be a campaign to educate the public about a predatory system that puts people into debt for basic needs such as food, housing, and education. In our view, none of these debts are valid – they accumulate immorally large amounts of fees and interest, and are the result of jacked-up original prices that should never have existed in the first place, were it not for out-of-control debt financing that inflated them to astronomical levels.

Moreover, there is simply no way for us to buy all of the debt.  The size of the secondary debt market is enormous – estimates vary, but seem to center in the high tens of billions, possibly over a hundred billion dollars per year.  We’ve raised about $560,000 as of March 14th, 2013, enough to buy about 12 million dollars of debt.  So it’s not simply a matter of getting more attention – we’d need to grow about a hundred thousand times larger to even handle a year’s worth of debt.  As we’ve always said, Rolling Jubilee is “a spark, not the solution.”  What we have to do, as a society, is start moving towards a world where healthcare, education, and other basic needs are not simply profit centers, not line items on a corporate balance sheet.  Creating that world is the main mission of Strike Debt.

So, what do we tell people who are in debt right now, and write to us asking that we buy their debt?  We are unable to give financial or legal advice, but that said, we can point you toward people who may be able to help. If you live in New York City and meet certain income restrictions, you can contact the organization NEDAP, (212) 925-4929, between 12 and 2 PM on Tuesdays-Thursdays. Or you can visit CLARO: http://www.brooklynvlp.org/programs/claro/  They’re a walk-in clinic that gives out free advice about debt collection.

If you’re not in New York, you can visit www.lawhelp.org or www.naca.net for referrals to free or low-cost legal services in your area that might be able to help. Please note that the organizations listed on lawhelp.org have income eligibility guidelines – check those before you call. If you feel comfortable, please share your story on our Tumblr – “Why Strike Debt?” – here.  Sharing your experience with debt may help others feel less alone, and will definitely help build the case that these debts are a crushing burden on society, one that must be eliminated by a broad debt resistance movement.