We’re scratching our heads over a story out of Houston, where a man named Paul Aker claims half a dozen U.S. Marshals showed up at his home last week and hauled him off in handcuffs — all because of a 29-year-old student loan debt. The amount he owed: just $1,500.
Aker, who was joined by local Rep. Gene Green, told his story to a local Fox news affiliate, claiming he never knew he owed student loan debt in the first place.
Several news outlets picked up the story, painting a dramatic scene in which “U.S. Marshals armed with automatic weapons” arrested Aker “for not paying a $1,500 student loan from three decades ago.” Another outlet even tried to tie Aker’s case to ongoing student loan protests led by disgruntled students who attended shady for-profit institutions.
This all makes for a compelling headline, but Yahoo Finance has learned the true story is much different.
Back in November 2006, Aker was sued by the federal government for nonpayment of more than $2,600 in unpaid federal student loan debt, according to documents from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas (embedded below). The court record shows that Aker, listed as Winford P. Aker in the complaint, did not appear in court to answer the lawsuit and, as is common when student loan borrowers fail to appear, the presiding judge ruled against him and ordered Aker to pay the full balance on April 17, 2007.
According to a statement from the U.S. Marshals Service, Aker repeatedly refused to show up in court after being contacted several times. The agency said Aker told them by phone he would not appear in court to answer the summons. Disobeying a court order is a criminal offense. Within a few months, the judge issued a warrant for his arrest, which the U.S. Marshals carried out. So, yes, Aker was arrested, but not just because he owed a little student loan debt. He was arrested for disobeying a court order.
The Marshals statement goes on to describe the arrest, saying Aker "resisted arrest and retreated back into his home" when agents arrived:
"The situation escalated when Aker verbally said to the deputies that he had a gun. After Aker made the statement that he was armed, in order to protect everyone involved, the deputies requested additional law enforcement assistance. Additional deputy marshals and local law enforcement officers responded to the scene. After approximately two hours, the law enforcement officers convinced Aker to peacefully exit his home, and he was arrested."
In the end, Aker went to court and was released. As far as we know, he did not spend any time in jail. Aker claims he was never notified about the order and that could very well be true. His address listed on the complaint is different than the only listing for a "Winford P. Aker" Yahoo Finance found in the Houston area. His court summons may have been sent to an old address (efforts to reach Aker were unsuccessful). However, the U.S. Marshals Service maintains they made every effort to track him down, "including searching at numerous known addresses."
It’s not clear why it took the Marshals more than three years to track him down, but the fact is he was arrested for failure to appear in court — not for his unpaid debt alone.
Jan Kruse, spokeswoman for the National Consumer Law Center, says cases like Aker's are not uncommon. If you ignore your student loan bills long enough, your loan servicer can sue you in civil court, which is what happened to Aker.
"If you receive a court summons, you should take it seriously," Kruse says.
U.S. Marshals commonly serve civil processes to include summonses to appear in court over outstanding federal debt. In Houston, there are approximately 1,500 people who have been identified for not appearing in court to address their outstanding federal student loans, which has resulted in a judge issuing warrants for their arrest, according to the Marshals Service.
Unforunately, it looks like it was a lapse in communication that landed Aker in handcuffs (to be clear, he did not spend time in jail — he was escorted by Marshals to court). And, to add insult to injury, he was ordered to pay more than $1,200 in fees back to the U.S. Marshals service for the cost of arresting him.
We were unable reach Aker for comment. We also reached out to Rep. Green’s office, but haven’t heard back.
Know your options
Aker's case is an extreme one but it might have been avoidable.
“I can’t say it more emphatically enough — there’s no need to allow it to get to that point with all the [repayment] options available,” says Betsy Mayotte, a consumer outreach director for advocacy group American Student Assistance. Federal student loan borrowers struggling to repay their debt may qualify for special repayment programs based on their income or have their loans consolidated. Despite these flexible options, the government has struggled to get the word out to borrowers.
There’s another reason Aker’s story probably struck a chord — some shady debt collectors have illegally posed as federal agents to scare borrowers into paying back their debts.
Just a couple of years ago, the FBI and U.S. Attorney General took down a company that made $4.1 million off such a scheme, duping 6,000 victims into believing they were associated with the U.S. Marshals Service as well as other bogus federal agencies like the “Federal Government Task Force” and the “DOJ Task Force.”
This tactic is used in all areas of debt collection, not just student loans, says Mayotte.
“If you’re contacted by someone threatening legal action over federal student loans, you should know there are consumer-friendly ways to resolve federal student loan debt,” she says. But if you do receive notification that you’re being sued and there’s a court date, show up.
“If you don't show up,” she says, “you don't have the opportunity to defend yourself.”
See the original complaint against Aker below:
*Due to a reporting error, we stated Aker was sued in November 2007. It was November 2006.
And his notice of failure to appear in court: