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Left in humiliation

For Audrey E. Anderson, a 71-year-old retired Wellesley College teacher, dealing with Chad Goldstone's company, Commonwealth Receivables, turned into an annual nightmare, with Commonwealth seizing her car three times - in 2001, 2002, and 2003.

But what the collection firm took from Anderson wasn't just her 1995 Toyota Camry, she said. It was a retiree's sense of independence. Because her car was seized, Anderson had to lean on her 85-year-old husband, Ezra, and friends, in ways she often found humiliating. ''When you're a strong person and you have your car taken, that's like losing your right arm,'' she said. ''You can't do anything.''

Unlike Joanne Johnson, Anderson did receive a notice from Framingham District Court to appear for her initial hearing, on a debt of $2,019. But she also received a letter from Commonwealth saying, ''Our representatives are willing to work with you on this matter so that your appearance in court may not be necessary.'' (Norfolk sends debtors letters with nearly identical language.)

Anderson said she called to negotiate, started making $50 monthly payments, and was again told she might not need to appear in court. But when she didn't show, Commonwealth won its case against her by default. And when Anderson missed a payment several months later, Commonwealth, armed with its court judgment, sent constables and a tow truck for her car.

If Anderson couldn't afford to pay off her remaining debt, she also couldn't afford the $600 fee charged by the constable for taking her Camry, she said. To get the car off the tow lot, Anderson paid a $135 towing and storage fee, and entered into two monthly payment plans: One to BayState Constable Service Inc. and another to Commonwealth, making an initial payment of $110 to each firm.

Anderson's records show she made some of those monthly payments. But with a limited income based largely on Social Security benefits, Anderson said, she fell behind. And once again, Commonwealth had her car towed.

Anderson managed to retrieve her car a second time, scraping together a payment of $1,075 and entering into another agreement to make monthly payments to Commonwealth. But when she fell behind a third time, the company took her car for good - along with, she said,

Even though retiree Audrey Anderson, 71, ended up paying far more than her original debt, she lost her car, seized by a debt collection company, for good. (Globe Staff Photo / Michele McDonald)

medication for her asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure that she had left in the vehicle. ''Can you re-seize this one?'' the fax from Commonwealth to BayState read. ''You should have the original [documents]. Thanks!''

Even though Anderson shelled out a total of $2,741 in debt payments, constable fees, and other charges - more than the original debt - she would never see her car again. Three years later, she still doesn't know what happened to it. When the Globe asked about its whereabouts, O'Connor, Commonwealth's lawyer, would only say that the Camry had been lawfully seized.

Yvonne W. Rosmarin, an Arlington attorney who has sued both Goldstone brothers on behalf of other consumers, said she believes it is unfair and misleading for the Goldstones to suggest to debtors that they do not have to go to court, without telling them that they will automatically lose their cases if they do not appear.

''The debtors work out payment plans, then there are default judgments issued against them and their cars are hooked,'' Rosmarin said. ''It seems to me outrageous.'' Rosmarin also said she believes the tactic is a violation of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

O'Connor, the Goldstones' lawyer, insisted that the letters are ''in no way'' deceptive and that they comply with federal law.

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