On Adriene McNally's 49th birthday in January, she heard a knock on the door of her modest row-home in Northeast Philadelphia.
She was being served.
"They actually paid someone to come out and serve me papers on a Saturday afternoon," she says.
The papers were from a government lawsuit that represents something more than just an unwelcome birthday gift — it's an example of a program the federal government has brought to 19 cities around the country including Brooklyn, Detroit, Miami and Philadelphia: suing to recover unpaid student loans, like the ones McNally owes.
Every day, 3,000 people default on their federal student loans — and those lack of payments amount to an unpaid bill of $137 billion for the federal government. For decades, the government has tried to get borrowers to pay up by hiring debt collection agencies to call and send letters. But now the government is trying this new lawsuit strategy.
McNally filed for bankruptcy in 2006 and cleared out all her creditors — except for student loans, which are nearly impossible to get rid of in bankruptcy. As she and many others have found out, it's not easy escaping federal student loan debt.
"Your whole body heats up with frustration," McNally says. "I'm so frustrated over all this. It's been so many years that they've been sending me mail and threatening me on the phone."
In the last two years, more than 3,300 student loan borrowers have been sued after defaulting, according to the Department of Justice. In nearly every one of those suits, the borrower loses and the government wins.
What does the government win? A lien on the borrower's assets — meaning that the debt is now attached to his or her most valuable belongings, like a home.
Jennifer Schultz, an attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, says that a lien traps a person, like house-handcuffs.
"I describe a lien as a kind of marker on the house," Schultz says. "Any time a person tries to do a transaction involving their house — a new mortgage, a refinance, or if they try to sell it — they're going to be expected to clear up any debt that's attached to that house."
The government has long been able to garnish wages, take income tax returns and divert Social Security and disability benefits. But targeting property is a way of applying even more pressure to get former students to pay up.
"It's to try to awaken the avoider from their slumber," says Drew Salaman, a debt-collection attorney in Philadelphia.
Salaman doesn't work with student loans, but he's familiar with debt avoidance. He says some of the borrowers are playing "catch me if you can." These lawsuits ensure that people take responsibility for their debts.
"After all," he says, "if we don't have systems in place to recover debts, how can credit be extended?"
The end result of these suits — the liens — can be seriously threatening to borrowers. For many it's a matter of housing preservation, says Joanna Darcus, an attorney on the student loan team at the National Consumer Law Center.
"For folks already living on the margins financially, the fear of losing that house can be palatable," Darcus says.
Once a lien is in place, the government can force the sale of a former student's home. That's "exceedingly rare," officials say, but it does sometimes happen.
The federal lawsuit program is expected to keep expanding, and with more than 8 million people currently behind on their federal student loans, it doesn't look like the private firms will run out of work any time soon.
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