When debt feels like it has spiraled out of control, you’re not alone if you feel like it’s almost impossible to get back on track. As the pile of bills grows higher, the sense of overwhelm is a common stress symptom of high debt. For those facing these challenging circumstances, finding the right debt collection defense attorney could be the most important step they take to protect their rights and interests.
In a recent interview, Chicago Consumer Law Center, P.C. ‘s consumer lawyer Rob Harrer shares insights on how his personal experience led him to serve the needs of consumers dealing with debt collection.
Q: Rob, you know from personal and professional experience how challenging life can be for anyone facing financial hardships and debt. What was it like to deal with the real estate downturn of 2008? How did you turn it around when you had creditors and debt collectors after you, you lost your home in a foreclosure, and you had no choice but to file for bankruptcy?
A: Before I became a lawyer, I was a homebuilder. We built modular homes in factories. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, I headed there because I knew people needed housing and they needed it fast. Modular housing was a great way to get good quality housing up fast. I found a property and an investment group to partner with and buy a property.
I was the sweat equity guy on site who would manage the project and build the homes; then, we would sell them. My reward would come at the end with the home sales; thus, I was living off my savings. Then things started to slow down with the real estate market and it was grinding down much faster than the rest of the country. Finally, the bubble burst, and the project went under. At this point, I had been living in debt, having burned through my savings.
This is why I identify so much with clients looking for a debt collection defense attorney. I have been at that financial low point myself. Soon I was sleeping on couches thanks to the kindness of strangers, all while working six days a week to get this project off the ground. During this time, I also lived out of my car and an abandoned home with no utilities. Then, in the midst of being homeless, our bank that was financing the mortgage to that property went under. The writing was on the wall.
I came back home to Chicago with a ton of credit card debt. I couldn’t pay my mortgage and had no job and no hopes for a job because the real estate market was gone. Then, one of my credit cards sued me for a debt. By then, I had decided to go to law school because a friend was in the industry, and I found it very interesting. I worked for him for about ten months because it was a midlife career change, and I needed to ensure that it was the right thing to do.
Q: How did this experience inspire your decision to go to law school and become a consumer protection attorney?
While in law school, I was sued for debt. We ended up winning the case, turning around, and suing the law firm for violating the FDCPA because law firms are considered debt collectors. That clinched it for me — the work was intriguing, and I loved knowing that consumers had rights and could fight back against the big guys.
Even though winning that case was a significant achievement, I was still facing my financial battles. I filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which allowed me to become a debt collection consumer defense lawyer. Without bankruptcy, I would still be paying off all my debts until I was in my 70s. Bankruptcy saved my life and made it possible for me to get married, start a family, and embark on a new career in law. I used what I learned to improve my credit score, even with a bankruptcy and a foreclosure on my records. That mortgage servicer was also a debt collector who broke the law several times, which allowed me to sue them. I’ve seen firsthand how often these companies try to take advantage of consumers regarding debt collection.
Since I’ve seen it all myself, I got a new perspective on life and a feel for what others are going through. I never intended not to pay my debts. That’s true for most people who face life or global events that derail their financial plans. Whether it’s a layoff, a recession, disease, divorce, or a death in the family, consumers deserve to know their rights and get support for opening the next chapter of their lives.
Q: What were some of the important lessons you learned?
A: My biggest mistake was ignoring the debt at first because I didn’t want to deal with it. I also knew that I couldn’t pay off this debt, but I kept making payments in good faith — the same reason the average person files bankruptcy two years later than they should. Because I was afraid of the legal system and embarrassed about getting so far behind, I waited way too long. Later, I learned that the legal system could help me, and a good lawyer is invaluable.
Finally, I didn’t know enough about credit after bankruptcy. I thought there was no way to improve my credit until bankruptcy was off my credit report, so I didn’t take any proactive steps to fix it in the years after my bankruptcy discharge. Today, I use my knowledge to help other consumers not just file for bankruptcy, but to plan proactively for the steps they can take to rebuild their credit in these critical years.
Q: What surprises your clients the most about debt collection defense, consumer protection, and bankruptcy?
A: I think what most clients are kind of amazed by is that cases in either defense or even the Debt Deletion Program are winnable. As a debt collection consumer defense lawyer, I’ve worked with many clients who feel beaten down when they enter my office. Many of them are surprised at the other end of their case when they have a real chance to get back on their feet. By finding the right bankruptcy lawyers, consumers can receive a new lease on life.
Q: Most clients don’t understand their rights when they first come to you. What are the most common misperceptions?
A: When we take on any new clients, most come to us for debt defense. But when we take on any new client, our goal is to get people back on their feet using the laws we know. We look at the big picture, not just the fact that you got sued by a company. We pull credit reports and look for other red flags, too.
To sum it up, when people hire us, we take a more holistic approach. I don’t know of any other bankruptcy lawyers who do this. Most firms just deal with the issue at hand, which is great if they do a good job and know what they’re doing. At Chicago Consumer Law Center, P.C., we take it a step further, and we don’t charge for any of this extra work. It’s just part of what we do.
Q: Rob, do you find many other cases where there are actual mistakes on the person’s credit report, like debts showing up that they don’t owe?
A: All the time! We’ve found debts that the client doesn’t owe at all, debts that should have aged off the credit report, and debts for incorrect amounts. The biggest culprit is a “merged file” when someone else’s account gets merged with yours at the credit agency. Even minor details on credit reports are helpful for us to share with our clients, like an incorrect date of default. That starts the statute of limitations, but most consumers don’t know this, and the debt collector can reset that. I went through this on my credit report, so I know what details to look for when helping a client as a debt collection consumer defense lawyer.
Q: You’re a co-founder of the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Consumer Debt and Credit Clinic. Tell us about that.
A: Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, or CVLS for short, is a legal aid organization that helps people who can’t afford legal help in different areas. It could be with housing, family law, mortgages, or foreclosures. Along with two other lawyers, I discussed the possibility of opening a clinic. We’ve been running it for three years now pro bono helping people with debt or credit issues.
Q: What is involved in the Free Legal Strategy Session you offer your clients?
A: Whenever somebody calls us, it’s always free. We’ll try to figure out their issue and how we can help. Ultimately, it’s a strategy session where we determine what’s best for them. We aim to meet you where you are and help you create a plan for moving forward.
Are you ready to resolve your debt and reclaim your life? Call now for your Free Legal Strategy Session at Chicago Consumer Law Center, P.C. at (312) 858-3240, or complete our online form to get those debts out of your life once and for all!
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