One summer evening in August 2021, April Washington looked out the window of her Dorchester home and saw her Ford truck being towed away.

Thinking she’d been robbed, the single mother quickly headed to the police station. She was surprised to find that a Massachusetts court had approved a debt buyer’s request to take her property as a way to make her pay about $1,200 the company said she owed on a nearly 20-year-old credit card bill.

Washington was confused. She wasn’t sure the debt was hers, and she’d been talking with representatives of the company, Champion Funding Inc., to reach a resolution. Soon after, she says she spoke to Champion’s owner, Andrew Metcalf of Avon, and was told the truck would be auctioned off if she didn’t pay her alleged debt. But she didn’t hold the title to the car, an auto loan company did.

“It was against the law for him to take my truck, because it doesn’t belong to me,” Washington told GBH News recently. “It put me in a bad position and it cost me.”

She fought the seizure in court and won about two weeks later. But she says it took nearly six weeks and about $1,400 to get her vehicle back from a tow lot in New Hampshire.

Washington’s story is among at least 20 legal complaints filed in state and federal courts against Metcalf and his debt-related companies since 2019, according to an investigation by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. The majority of them involve claims that Metcalf and his companies ordered the unlawful seizure of automobiles, including allegations that the wrong cars were taken from the wrong people.

One of the plaintiffs is Attorney General Andrea Campbell. Her office filed suit in February against Metcalf and his companies, Champion Funding and Judgment Acquisitions Unlimited, claiming they were violating state law by using aggressive debt collection methods. The allegations — including Washington’s story — involve holding cars “hostage” to coerce people to pay debts they allegedly owe.

The attorney general’s case is pending in Suffolk County Superior Court. In March, following a request from the state, a judge ordered Metcalf to return to owners — at his own expense — any vehicles he had seized. But Metcalf still is in business and has an active debt collectors license from the Division of Banks. He couldn’t be reached and his attorney Brendan Pitts declined to comment for this story.

Metcalf’s legal issues highlight what many consumer advocates say is a troubling reality: that the state’s small claims courts continue to serve as a de facto arm for the debt-collecting industry despite years of attempts to fix the system.

The complicated legal process allows third-party debt buyers, like Metcalf, to cheaply purchase old debts from companies that in many cases have long given up on collecting what is owed. Debts can be passed from company to company making it unclear whether there is a valid chain of proof of the debt. Collectors often start with letters and phone calls but can go to court to force payment — in some cases getting permission to garnish wages or seize property until a debt is settled.

Andrew Metcalf
Andrew Metcalf in a screen shot of a video he posted for his company Judgment Acquisitions Unlimited.
Judgment Acquisitions Unlimited

There is no court data to show how many cars are seized by debt collectors. However, Metcalf’s companies appear to be outliers in terms of using this tactic to pay off a debt.

Washington’s attorney, Robert Josephs, says he was surprised to hear about his client’s plight because it was so unusual.

“Champion Funding, Judgment Acquisitions Unlimited and Andrew Metcalf are the most aggressive debt collectors that I’ve seen in the last two decades,” Joseph told GBH News recently. “This was being used just to hold the car as hostage without any plan to auction off the car … to force the debtor to pay off a debt through what I believe is unlawful methods.”

Metcalf’s two companies have filed more than 1,800 lawsuits, mostly in the state’s small claims courts, since 2017, according to an analysis of court records by data science students in Boston University’s Spark! program in collaboration with GBH News. Champion Funding was created to buy debts. Judgment Acquisitions was tasked with collecting on them, although it now purchases debts too.

GBH News reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents for this story, finding that Metcalf and his companies settled or lost at least a dozen cases in the last three years, ordered to pay some $314,000 in legal costs and damages in three cases where damages were publicly released. There are also other payments he’s made in cases obscured from public view through out-of-court settlements and other legal complaints.

Consider the case of Paulette Parham of Dorchester who said her Toyota Camry was unlawfully seized in the middle of the night in 2022 over a $3,000 debt from 2007 that she’s not convinced she owed.

Like Washington, Parham told GBH News that she also first thought her car was stolen. Then she learned that Metcalf or one of his agents had ordered the seizure of her 11-year-old car — even though his state-issued debt collectors license had lapsed. She filed what is called a demand letter — a state process that allows a consumer to file complaints before going to court — and says she eventually won an $8,000 settlement.

“I want back what the devil took from me,” Parham said she told her legal aid lawyer. “You took my car. You wouldn’t allow me to get my personal things out of my car.”

Paulette Parham of Dorchester stands by her car that was seized in 2022 by a debt collector who was working with a lapsed license.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

The state’s small claims courts were created to make it easier for people to seek redress in financial disputes. The trial court boasts on its website that it is “known popularly as the people’s court,” because of fewer formal requirements. But it is now heavily used by corporations pursuing small debts that are $7,000 or less.

A 2006 investigation by the Boston Globe detailed the problem. Consumer advocates and state regulators say the situation remains largely the same two decades later, or perhaps has grown worse, as the country’s reliance on debt has skyrocketed. In 2016, nearly 70% of cases filed in four Massachusetts small claims sessions were corporations suing consumers to collect debts, according to a report by the National Consumer Law Center.

The consumers lose the overwhelming majority of these cases. Across the country, most people don’t show up for their court cases, sometimes because they didn’t receive notice or didn’t recognize the company who sued them. In 2022, a group of attorneys sent a letter to Massachusetts trial court officials pleading for reforms to protect low-income people from what they said had become “debt collecting machines.”

Matthew Brooks, managing attorney in the consumer rights unit of the nonprofit Greater Boston Legal Services, says issues described in the letter have not improved.

“We’re using public resources and the threat of state power to collect on a corporate debt. I just don’t think that’s a great use of anyone’s time or funds,” Brooks told GBH News.

Matthew Brooks
Matthew Brooks, Greater Boston Legal Services, at Roxbury District Court in March 2024.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

Metcalf stands out as one of the state’s most active local debt collectors, according to data provided by the Division of Banks. In 2022, he purchased 752 debtor accounts, making him one of the 10 top buyers among licensed debt collectors in Massachusetts, according to state data obtained by GBH News.

Among the top buyers, Metcalf is the only one based locally. Most debt collectors in Massachusetts are larger companies from out of state, like the California-based Midland Credit Management Inc., which purchased more than 55,000 debtor accounts in Massachusetts in 2022, according to the Division of Banks.

Despite Metcalf’s smaller number of accounts, he has a sizable reputation among local consumer lawyers and even some of the people ruling on his cases. Kimberly Annesi, an assistant clerk magistrate in Roxbury District Court, who rules on small claims cases, told GBH News that she grew concerned by the number of people coming into her court saying their cars were repossessed on a long-forgotten debt. In some cases, she’s suggested that people seek advice from a legal aid attorney.

“You started a company to buy this uncollectible debt and now you’re going seizing cars,’’ Annesi said of Metcalf during an interview with GBH News earlier this year.

Metcalf describes himself on the website for Judgment Acquisitions Unlimited as a married father of two who is involved in philanthropic efforts and local sports. In a 2018 video, Metcalf said he has “cracked the code” to successfully collect on judgments — court orders that allow debt collectors to use tools like wage garnishment or property seizures to pursue payment. “If we cannot collect it, nobody can,’’ he said.

Since then, Metcalf’s business has grown. In 2020, he reported to the state that Judgment Acquisitions purchased 47 debt accounts. In 2021, that number jumped to 707. He also collects debts owned by other companies. In total, he told the state that he attempted to collect debts from nearly 14,000 people between 2019 and 2022 — successfully collecting about $4.1 million from about 3,745 people, averaging nearly $1,100 a case.

In a court deposition in 2022, he told a lawyer that he incorporated Judgment Acquisitions to work nationwide several years prior because business had grown from a one-person gig launched two decades ago to one with a handful of employees.

“I wear pretty much all the hats in my company,” he said at the time. “We’re moving into where the big boys play, so to speak, not just you know me in my basement.”

As his businesses have grown, Metcalf and his companies are facing increasing blowback.

In 2021, Marcio Barbosa of Marlborough sued Metcalf in U.S. District Court, saying he was a victim of misidentification. Barbosa said that his car was seized in 2020, even after he provided documents showing that the alleged debtor was a man with a different name, birthday and social security number.

A few days later a magistrate confirmed that Barbosa was not the debtor, court records show. Yet Barbosa says one of Metcalf’s employee continued to pressure him to pay to get his car back, insulting his honesty and questioning his immigration status in the process.

He was able to pick up his car only after paying a tow lot $707 to release it. Barbosa’s attorney Kristin Thurbide says her client eventually won a settlement, specifics of which she declined to detail. Barbosa could not be reached for comment.

In a later deposition, Metcalf told Thurbide that he should have focused more on the case as it was unfolding. “I probably should have taken better control of it obviously, in hindsight,” he said. “It probably wouldn’t have blown up like it did.”

A woman in a red jacket sits in a chair in her office.
Attorney Kristin Thurbide in her Hanover office in May 2024.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

Thurbide works in a small law office in Hanover, where she says she has represented about a dozen clients who reached out to her after their vehicles were ordered seized by Metcalf or his agents. She says that unlike many other debt collectors who will seek to garnish someone’s wages with approval from the court, Metcalf moves directly to car seizures.

“It appears as though he has made a calculation and determined that it’s profitable enough for him to just keep on going the way that he’s doing it and just pay the cases where he gets caught,” she said.

Turning the tables

Washington learned that even winning a case against Metcalf has its own hurdles.

After her truck was seized, Washington went to court and successfully asked a clerk magistrate to vacate the debt and return her vehicle. She said it took several more weeks to get her truck back. Frustrated, she went back to court to seek financial damages for her time and expense, eventually winning a nearly $31,000 reward.

In a turn of events, Washington found herself spending months chasing Metcalf down.

She went to court to seek help getting a payment plan and Metcalf missed several hearings, court records show.

In November of last year, Metcalf notified her attorney that he did not have funds to pay the debt and offered to settle for $12,000, according to a letter obtained by GBH News. In January, frustrated by the lack of action, Washington obtained a civil arrest warrant known as a Capias, allowing her to hire a sheriff or constable to arrest Metcalf and bring him to court.

Short-haired man in a suit hold a legal document in his two hands.
Attorney Robert Josephs holds the civil arrest warrant he obtained to bring Andrew Metcalf to court to pay his client back.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

A clerk signed the Capias detailing that Metcalf could only be arrested during daylight hours. But it never came to that. In most cases, such civil warrants are used to threaten, not actually arrest people, consumer advocates say. It appeared to work. In April, Washington notified the court that she received her money.

Washington is surprised that Metcalf still has a license.

“He’s causing people financial problems, but he’s still financially gaining and we’re losing,” she said. “What kind of system is this?”

Data collection for this story was provided by Civera. Data analysis for this story was provided by students from Boston University’s Justice Media Computational Journalism co-Lab, a collaboration between Boston University’s Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences’ SPARK! Program and the College of Communication. Work was led by students Yichen Jessica Tong and Sofia Andrienko.