Lawsuits are sometimes filed against the wrong people, critics say. Other times, they say, the amount owed is incorrect or includes questionable fees and interest that has been added to the balance.
In addition, it is not always clear if the debt buyer filing suit legally owns the debt, since debt portfolios are often sold several times.
Some collection lawyers complain that new requirements being imposed are holding them to higher standards than even the original creditors.
“In actuality, it’s impossible to comply with,” said Pedro Zabala, a North Carolina lawyer, speaking of a law passed last fall that requires more documentation to file suit.
Fred N. Blitt, the president of the National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys, which represents more than 700 law firms, said the increase in collection cases was an inevitable result of the huge number of people who are not paying their bills. Given the volume of cases, Mr. Blitt maintained that mistakes were few.
“The reality is, if people owe the money, they should pay it,” he said.
Cohen & Slamowitz declined to be interviewed for this article. In a 2009 deposition for a case accusing Cohen & Slamowitz of pursuing a debt that had already been paid, a partner at the firm, David A. Cohen, said the firm had 14 lawyers, though it also hired numerous outside lawyers to appear in court on a per diem basis. It also employed 30 to 40 legal secretaries and paralegals and about 60 people trying to collect debts, he said.
The firm filed 59,708 cases in 2005, 83,665 in 2006, 87,877 in 2007 and 80,873 in 2008, records from the lawsuit show.
As the case load has increased, some state legislators and judges have started to demand more information on the debt.
In addition to the new law in North Carolina, which requires third-party debt collectors to provide more proof of the debt, like an itemization of charges and fees, some local judges are challenging lawyers who are not prepared to back up their claims.
At a civil court hearing in Brooklyn in March, Judge Noach Dear demanded documents from Cohen & Slamowitz supporting its claim that Herman Johnson of Brooklyn owed $3,797.27 in credit card debt. Mr. Johnson disputed the claim.
“What proof did you have that this is the true gentleman that you were trying to pursue?” the judge asked David Robinson, a lawyer for Cohen & Slamowitz, according to a transcript.
“Just his Social, his date of birth, and his address and the account,” Mr. Robinson said.
“That’s all you have?” the judge said. “So if you have somebody’s Social number, date of birth and address, you could sue them without any other information?”
Mr. Johnson’s case was dismissed, and Judge Dear last month issued an order requiring, among other things, that Cohen & Slamowitz provide further proof of a debt if a defendant challenged the firm’s claim.
In an interview, Judge Dear said he did not think the order would necessarily result in a large drop-off in lawsuits. But, he said, given Cohen & Slamowitz’s size, he hoped it would persuade other law firms to follow suit.
“I think personally it will weed out the cases that are no good, and then we’ll get the defendants that truly do owe a debt,” he said.