A trip to the underworld of debt collection,
where bankers team up with ex-burglars and few rules
Bad Paper is a riveting exposé, a moving story of an unlikely friendship, and a gritty narrative of how scrappy entrepreneurs profit from our debts. Jake Halpern introduces us to a former banking executive and a former armed robber who become partners and go in quest of “paper”—the uncollected debts that are sold off by banks for pennies on the dollar. As Halpern shows, the world of consumer debt collection is a wild and unregulated shadowland, where operators may misrepresent a debtor’s situation, make illegal threats, and even lay claim to debts that are not theirs to collect in the first place. It is a realm of indelible individuals who possess a swagger and vocabulary that even David Mamet could not invent. Halpern follows his collectors as they intimidate competitors with weapons, manage high-pressure call centers, and scheme new ways to benefit from American’s debt-industrial complex. He also explores the history of collection agencies and reveals the human cost of a system that leaves hardworking Americans with little opportunity to retire their debts in a reasonable way. The result is a bravura work of storytelling that is also an important consciousness-raiser.
Jake Halpern is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, the author of Fame Junkies and Braving Home, and the coauthor of two young adult novels. He is a fellow of Morse College at Yale University. His hour-long radio story “Switched at Birth” is one of This American Life’s seven most popular shows ever.
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