"Believe it or not, the US Marshals Service in Houston is arresting people for not paying their outstanding federal student loans." That's the explosive claim of Fox26, the network's Houston affiliate, in a Feb. 15 that has quickly gone viral on the Internet. Interviewed is area resident Paul Aker, who said he was arrested at his home last week for a $1,500 federal student loan he received in 1987. A team of seven in "combat gear and automatic weapons" appeared at his door. Related Aker: "I was home, I hadn't done anything, and I was wondering, why are the marshals knocking on my door?" He was put in shackles and handcuffs, and taken before a federal judge. Also in the studio was Rep. Gene Green, who went along with Aker's story that he "didn't receive any kind of notice" before the raid.
Green also noted that the attorney in the courtroom was a private one—the federal government is now using private debt collectors to go after outstanding student loans. Green said those private outfits are going to federal court and asking judges to sic the Marshals Service on debtors. Added Fox26: "Our reliable source with the US Marshal in Houston say [sic] Aker isn't the first and won't be the last. They have to serve anywhere from 1200 to 1500 warrants to people who have failed to pay their federal student loans."
It turns out there's a little more to the story. Yahoo Finance took a closer look and found that in November 2006, Aker was sued by the feds for non-payment of more than $2,600 in student loan debt. Court records show that Aker, listed as "Winford P. Aker" in the complaint, did not appear to answer the suit. As is common in such cases, the judge ruled against him and ordered Aker to pay the full balance by April 17, 2007. According to a statement from the Marshals Service, Aker repeatedly failed to show in court after being contacted. The agency said Aker told them by phone he would not appear to answer the summons—basically, expressing his intent to commit a criminal offense. After a few months, the judge issued an arrest warrant—which the Marshals carried out. The Marshals statement maintains that Aker "resisted arrest and retreated back into his home" when agents arrived. Concludes Yahoo: "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 New York Times reached similar findings, stating in its headline: "Viral Student Loan Nightmare Is Not What It Seems, Authorities Say." But its main blurb was telling: "In a country where 40 million people owe upward of $1.2 trillion on their student loans, it's not hard to imagine why a tale about armed federal agents' [sic] showing up at the door of a Texas man to arrest him over unpaid student loans set the Internet abuzz."
So the Fox26 anchor was still right when he prefaced the report thusly: "This is a story that will probably outrage you and leave you asking why are the resources of the federal government being used this way." Fox26 should have done more fact-checking, and Aker didn't play his cards very well. But it is still an outrageous case. On the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders has won support by promising tuition-free public colleges and universities—and eliminating student loan repayment requirements for middle-class families.