1. In the spring of 2011, Cherron Marie Phillips, a real estate agent in Chicago, decided to take revenge on twelve government officials who had been involved in prosecuting her brother Devon for drug trafficking. Phillips went to the office of her local recorder of deeds, where she filed a series of liens against the judges, prosecutors, law enforcement agents, and court staff who had taken part in his case. (Liens establish a legal claim to property in order to guarantee the payment of a debt.) One of the targeted officials was Patrick Fitzgerald, the former US attorney who oversaw Devon’s prosecution; at the time, he was already well known for leading the investigation of the Valerie Plame affair and prosecuting former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Phillips claimed that Fitzgerald owed her brother $100 billion, a sum that no public servant, even one assured of a plum post-government salary, could hope to pay. Since debtors generally aren’t notified when a lien is placed on their property, Phillips’s liens were not discovered until months later, when a court clerk named Michael Dobbins tried to sell a parking space he owned and found it was encumbered with a $100 billion debt.
2. Such tactics have become known as paper terrorism, defined by Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League, as “the use of bogus legal documents and filings, or the misuse of legitimate ones, to intimidate, harass, threaten, or retaliate against public officials, law enforcement officers, or private citizens.” Liens are simple and inexpensive for paper terrorists to file but difficult for victims to scrub away. Even when the claims are obviously fake—alleging debts of outlandish magnitude—the supposed debtors can be forced to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to clear the titles to their homes or to restore their credit ratings. According to John Gale, the secretary of state of Nebraska, who led a campaign against paper terrorism, “Many people have just had to live with these liens because they don’t have the resources to take them off.” And fraudulent liens are just one weapon in the arsenal: paper terrorists can also attack with pro se lawsuits; frivolous requests for documents; involuntary bankruptcy petitions; and false judgments, tax forms, and property deeds. In doing so, they erode the integrity of public records and the functioning of government, in addition to harming their victims.