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Even Elizabeth Warren gets harassed by debt collectors — and it's about to get worse for everyone

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Jacquelyn Martin | AP
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The calls started two or three months after Elizabeth Warren got a new cellphone number many years ago. They were looking for Gus.

"I'd get them in spurts. I'd get maybe 10 calls in the space of three or four days. And I'd say 'no, no, no' every time. And then I wouldn't hear anything more for several months and I'd say, 'OK, that problem's gone away,'" Warren said in an interview with The Intercept.

"And then it would start again — and I'd get calls for Gus."

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Even Washington's most powerful denizens aren't immune from the signature annoyance purveyed by the multibillion-dollar debt collection industry — and it could be about to get worse. President Trump's Federal Communications Commission is fielding petitions from industry groups to allow them to increase the frequency of such calls, and to reach out to friends and family of Gus, too. The current FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, has previously voted against efforts to limit debt collection calls.

Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, made her name as an academic through her work on bankruptcy and later went on to dream up, then push through Congress, then run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Despite her steady rise to influence and power, she couldn't make the calls stop.

"This went on for maybe four or five years [before] I finally thought, I'm gonna track this down and make this stop," the former Harvard law professor said. "So I tried — and I could never figure out who I was talking to and each time they'd assure me it was going to be fixed. And each time I'd get another collection call within the space of a few hours."

Warren never played the senatorial card — What good would it do? — but she did try a few different approaches, she said. "I told them I was a lawyer and that I did debt collection law and that they could not still be calling on a debt that was this old. And I would try to throw out a few legal phrases and they did absolutely no good. Zero, none," she said.

The calls weren't all intimidating or rude, she said. "Some of them called and were very friendly. 'Hey, Gus! How's it going?' And I'd say, 'I'm not Gus.' 'Yeah, well, Gus — When's Gus gonna be there?' And I'd say, 'Gus has not had this number for six years at least.' And the answer was, 'Ah, Gus, my man!'" she said.

"Sometimes over the years they'd be robocalls; sometimes the kind where you answer the phone and there's a pause — so you can tell it's being dialed somewhere else — and then someone comes on and starts reading from a script; sometimes they'd leave voicemails for me to tell me where I can call back."

Warren first relayed the story of Gus to me a little more than a year ago. I had been moderating a panel on the fifth anniversary of the report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which explored the deep fraud and abuse that had precipitated the crisis. I had forgotten to silence my phone, and during the panel, it rang — with a call from a debt collector. I can't remember what unpaid bill they were after, but I told former FDIC Chair Sheila Bair, seated to my left, who the caller had been. Bair responded with what she recalled Wednesday as an "experience from hell with credit reporting agencies."

At a department store, she broke her cardinal rule of having just one credit card, going for a big discount on offer. When the bill came, she paid it, but she was off by $2 and so got hit with a late fee of 10 bucks. She ignored it, and the department store reported her to the credit reporting agencies, ultimately knocking her score down a full 100 points. It took her six months and an extraordinary amount of effort to clean up.

Her husband, meanwhile, who has a fairly common name, had spent years getting debt collection calls intended for somebody else. "They don't pay them well, they don't train them well," said Bair of the staff at the various companies, analogizing it to the financial crisis. "We certainly saw that during the mortgage crisis, with the servicers who didn't have real training. It just complicated a really dysfunctional system."

I told Warren, too, and she responded with her tale of Gus. Interviewed about it again this week, she said she made one final effort last spring to make the calls stop, but failed. Later in the year, as part of the John Podesta email dump by WikiLeaks, her number was posted online. So she got rid of it. "That's the only way I finally solved the problem … I got rid of the phone number," Warren said. "As far as I know, there's still debt collectors calling that number." (If they're still calling, they're hitting a dead end. The number is currently not in service.)

For Bair and Warren, who are financially stable, the calls were a nuisance rather than a major threat to their well-being. But if the founder of the CFPB and one of the most powerful FDIC chairs in American history can't make debt collection calls stop, what chance does anybody else have?

"There's no rationality on the other end," Warren said. "Actually, I shouldn't say that, because it was perfectly rational. They were doing what made sense to them, and that is, they'd buy up these debts, they had a phone number attached to it, at least the one for Gus, and they'd just work 'em over, and keep working 'em over and working 'em over. And I thought about what it must've been like for Gus, because they never gave up, not ever."

It made her think back to her seminal study on bankruptcy. In their survey of people who'd gone through bankruptcy, Warren and her colleagues asked what the factor was that had pushed them toward filing. "A huge number of people responded, 'To stop the collection calls. They call in the morning, they call at night, they call day long, they call my cell, they call my office, and I can't live like this anymore.' I got just a little taste of that personally."

I asked if there was anything she had learned through the experience that she didn't pick up in her academic, legal, or political work. She paused and concluded, "Debt collection calls suck."

Reprinted with permission from The Intercept.