Consumerist: Consumers Trapped Into Paying Debts They Don’t Owe

Ashlee Kieler at Consumerist writes about the dilemma of being forced to pay a debt that is not owed:

Imagine receiving a phone call that 25% of your wages are going to be garnished because of a credit card account opened 14 years earlier that was never paid off. Making things worse, you know you didn’t have a credit card from the bank in question at that time, so it can’t possibly be your debt. This should be an easily remedied error, but not if a court has already granted a default judgment against you, making you responsible for paying back money that you didn’t owe and didn’t find out about until it was too late.

The consumer featured in this story, like so many other people, had a judgment entered against her for a debt belonging to someone else. She didn’t know that she had been sued until years after a default judgment was entered against her. She only found out when the debt buyer that sued her called threatening to garnish her wages (which it did, to the tune of $1,400). As the Consumerist explains, this is not an uncommon experience.  It can and does happen in Maryland.

In Maryland this kind of judgment is usually called an “Affidavit Judgment” and is entered when the defendant in a lawsuit does not file a Notice of Intention to Defend or a Motion to Dismiss the lawsuit. As the Consumerist story highlights, sometimes the wrong person is served (or the process server lies about serving the defendant).

Once a judgment is entered it can be difficult to set it aside, even if there is a good reason for not having fought the original lawsuit. In Maryland, a defendant in that position would have to file a motion showing that the original judgment was a result of “fraud, mistake or irregularity” – terms which could include not being served with the original lawsuit. However, as Consumerist observes, even showing you were never served is not enough unless you can defend yourself against the lawsuit and show that the debt was never yours.