A man in Houston, Texas, made headlines with his claim that a U.S. Federal Marshal sent seven people in full combat gear to arrest him for a student loan he didn't even know he owed. Paul Aker claims he was kept in a holding cell for an hour without access to an attorney, and forced to sign a $200 a month repayment agreement before he was allowed to leave.
The debt, from 1987, began as a measly $1,500 and grew to about $5,700 with interest. Considering that the average 2015 student loan debt was about $35,000, many people with much larger student loans were left scratching their heads - and wondering if they might be the next target for arrest.
As soon as the news broke, the U.S. Marshals Service went on the defensive, claiming this was an extraordinary case and that the average borrower is unlikely to face such drastic action from the government to collect on an unpaid loan. However, their explanation raises just as many questions as it answers.
According to original court documents obtained by Yahoo! News, Aker was summoned regarding the unpaid debt in 2007. He didn't show up in court to answer the government's lawsuit, so the judge ruled against him and ordered him to pay the full balance as soon as possible. Aker then failed to appear in court several times, effectively disobeying a court order - a criminal offense, for which the judge issued an arrest warrant. (Also, the fact that he was confronted by officers in full combat gear? That probably had something to do with the fact that he told officers he had a gun, which was a very poor choice regardless of circumstances.)
Aker, however, claims he never received any communications regarding the loan and wasn't even aware of what he owed. In an interview with CNN, he said he'd consolidated his student loan debt and assumed everything was paid off - and that he never refused to appear in court. Here's the story as he originally told it to reporters at Fox 26:
It remains to be seen whether his version of events is true, but it's not outside of the realm of possibility that he genuinely knew nothing about the lawsuit, the ruling against him, or the warrant. Even the U.S. Marshals admit it took three years after the warrant was issued to track him down because they didn't have a current address on file. It seems plausible that the communications they insist they sent him were lost in the mail.
It's also possible that he shrugged off some of their attempts to reach out to him, assuming it was some sort of scam. Unfortunately, it's fairly common for shady debt collectors to pose as U.S. Marshals, bogus federal agents or DOJ officials in order to intimidate borrowers into repaying their debts. The FBI and U.S. Attorney General took down one such company in 2014, alleging that the collection agency used such illegal tactics to cash in on over $4.1 million.
Overseas scammers have even adopted the same approach of posing as law enforcement officials to bully people into paying debts that don't even exist. It's easy to see why someone might roll their eyes and hang up if they'd never received an official court summons by mail, especially if they didn't think they had any outstanding debt.
Despite the unusual circumstances, Aker's case still seems fairly extreme - is it really worth the time and tax dollars spent over the past 30 years to try to collect on just $1,500? The expense of recovering it at this point has probably eclipsed the amount the government stands to recover, even with the years of added interest. It probably would have cost the government less to simply forgive the debt.
So, what's the takeaway from this story? Could what happened to Paul Aker happen to you? If you're having trouble paying your student loans, or have a loan you don't know about, are you in danger of being arrested by armed officers? Probably not - this seems to be a case of misunderstanding and miscommunication spanning several years.
However, there are a few important lessons in all this. If you've ever consolidated your student loans, it's worth checking to make sure absolutely everything was included. As anyone who's ever attended college in the U.S. can attest, it's easy to end up with more loans that you realize, especially if your debts have been bought and sold by different lenders over the years. And if you receive a letter or phone call threatening legal action over your failure to pay, follow up with your lender to make sure everything is legit. It could save you the harrowing experience of an unexpected arrest - and the financial strain of years of interest.