But the industry is still rife with problems—for one, the firms hire people to drop off the summonses at people's addresses, and they often leave the forms with someone who has no connection to the person actually being sued for debt. This was at the heart of Cuomo's recent lawsuit.

Additionally, in each of these cases, a debt collector has to sign and swear that they have "direct knowledge of the facts of the case." Usually, the companies hire lawyers to do that, too. For instance, in the case of one law firm, Mel S. Harris & Associates, a man named Todd Fabacher has personally signed off that he has "direct knowledge of the facts" of hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of cases. "I don't know how that's humanly possible," says Nasoan Sheftel-Gomes, a lawyer for the Urban Justice Center who works with people being sued by debt collectors. (Calls to Fabacher have not been returned.)

By the late 1990s, subprime was the fastest growing sector of the credit card industry. Today, 400,000 of the city's poorest households pay about 40 percent of their monthly income to credit card and installment plans. Most of the rest goes to rent.

While Dear gave the Voice unusual access to his courtroom, he was reticent about his troubled political record. He didn't want to "dredge up what happened 30 years ago," and, he says, "There are people who would like to see me fail."

He recalls, one afternoon, that his life seems to have come full-circle: The first bill he sponsored as a councilman was a bill to license debt collectors. He says he has taken a special liking to pro se court, where defendants represent themselves, and often requests to be placed there on the rotation of judges. "I feel like I'm contributing something," he says.

"I like to fight for the underdog."

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