I never thought I’d write a book about debt. Never. Strange as it sounds, this book owes it existence to two people: my mother and Brad Pitt.
It began with my mom. She started getting calls from a debt collector over a debt that she didn’t even owe. So, I started investigating the debt collections industry and discovered that my hometown – Buffalo, N.Y. – was one of the epicenters.
I ended up writing a profile about a collector, from Buffalo, for the New Yorker. After the article came out, I got a call from Brad Pitt’s producer, telling me that he wanted to turn the story into a TV series with HBO. I was shocked. But, he was serious.
So, I end up traveling back to Buffalo, with the screenwriter, and we stayed at my parent’s house. It was surreal. The screenwriter was staying up on the third floor and my dad and his wife are making meals for him in the kitchen. My job on this trip was to line up some interesting people for the screenwriter to meet, so his script seemed authentic.
Back when I was doing my story for the New Yorker, no one wanted to talk with me. Now, all of a sudden, I am doing a project with “Brad,” and people are tripping over themselves to talk.
One night, the screenwriter and I go out to dinner with a banker and a former armed robber who had gone into business with one another. They tell me an incredible tale.
They purchased $1.5 billion worth of bad debt for pennies on the dollar. Their aim was to make a fortune. All goes well on this unlikely venture until some of the debt is stolen and the former armed robber must delve into an underworld where debt is bought and sold on street corners. This quest ends in a showdown with guns in the inner city of Buffalo, N.Y.
My book tells the story of Aaron and Brandon’s unlikely partnership and it also tracks the stolen portfolio of debt they set out to retrieve. To its handlers, that portfolio was just a spreadsheet containing the names and social security numbers of debtors and the amounts they owed; but that same spreadsheet was also a collection of stories about Americans whose financial lives had unraveled.
My book chronicles some of those lives and simultaneously explores a thriving industry that buys and sells old loans like precious jewels. In many blighted neighborhoods, in Buffalo and elsewhere, small shops that collect debt—often by unsavory means—are sources of employment and engines of mobility for people who, otherwise, would be hard-pressed to find work.
Across the country, a much larger industry traffics in old debts, frequently using dubious methods to pressure debtors into paying up, even on debts they have already settled or for which they are no longer liable. As sensational as this may sound, it is exactly what one might expect in a country that is driven by profit, mired in debt, and not fully able or willing to tame the marketplace that is created when these two forces meet.
I look forward to sharing these and other stories when I visit Washington D.C. and have lunch with the D.C. Bar. I hope you will join me!
To meet Jake Halpern, please go here to register for the event at the D.C. Bar Conference center on Wednesday, November 5.