Last week, U.S. Marshals arrested Houston resident Paul Aker for failing to pay off a student loan.
The story has gone viral, and Aker appeared on a Houston-area Fox affiliate on Monday to tell how seven deputy marshals visited his home with guns last Thursday.
Aker's situation was in some ways exceptional: The debt he owed was nearly three-decades old, and when the Marshals arrived, Aker resisted arrest, according to a statement from the agency. But in other ways it was not. In a statement, U.S. Marshals rep Nikki Credic-Barrett said its Houston division alone processed 25 arrest warrants last year on individuals who were wanted in court over outstanding debt. Of those, seven resulted in arrest because the individuals failed to show up to court.
"When the U.S. Marshals receive the orders from the judge, the Marshals make numerous attempts to give the person every opportunity to come to court to resolve the matter without arrest," she said. "Our goal is not to arrest people regarding this issue, but to give them a chance to comply with the court order and resolve their debt.
At present, she said, the Houston Marshals have "less than 10 warrants" to process regarding student loan debt, but another 1,500 or so individuals have been identified by the court as having defaulted on their federal loans and, if they fail to pay, could be brought to court.
Credic-Barrett said the agency could not immediately identify how many warrants have been or are being processed nationally, due to the disparate databases the warrants are entered into. But simple math would dictate that if Houston alone had 25, the national figure is likely in the hundreds.
Jan Kruse, spokeswoman for the National Consumer Law Center, confirmed to Yahoo News that cases like Aker's are not uncommon.
"If you receive a court summons, you should take it seriously," Kruse said.
Reddit is filled with users saying they are being taken to court for failing to pay off their student debts, both private and federal and asking for advice. Scott Greenfield, a criminal defense attorney who wrote about the Aker case, told me in an email that, defaulting on private student debt obligations, as opposed to federal loans, can produce nasty results, but not arrest.
"Sometimes judgment creditors find assets," he said. "Sometimes they don't. Then they have to go back to court to attach the assets. It's time-consuming, expensive and, often, produces little to no results. You can't get blood from a rock."
Whatever the Marshals are saying about the opportunities they give for debtors to avoid arrest, we should be alarmed that they are being deployed at all, he said.
"[If you can] have the Marshals do it for you, arrest a guy, bring him to court, use criminal sanctions to obtain payment…it saves a lot of hassle and produces remarkably better results."
A Department of Education rep did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.