Lawyers drained Linda Brice’s bank account and seized a quarter of her take-home pay, or more than $900 a month. Brice, a first-grade teacher and Coast Guard veteran, begged for mercy, saying she couldn’t afford food, gas or utilities.

Brice’s transgression: She defaulted on $3,100 she had borrowed more than 30 years ago to pay for college. The chief federal judge in Los Angeles took her side, ruling that Brice should pay only $25 a month. The law firm of Goldsmith & Hull — representing the federal government — then withdrew $2,496 from her bank account.

“I am at the end of my rope,” Brice wrote in a May 2009 court filing. “I apologize for taking the court’s time, but I simply do not know what to do.”

Brice’s case shows how tough the government can be when it comes to collecting its share of student-loan debt, which totals $1 trillion, surpassing the amount owed on credit cards. Students who borrow as teenagers and whose degrees don’t pay off confront some of the harshest treatment and fewest chances for a fresh start of any debtors, except those owing child support.

When the Education Department fails to get repaid, the agency can turn borrowers’ names over to federal prosecutors. In turn, U.S. attorneys are hiring private law firms to retrieve money for taxpayers — after the firms keep a cut for themselves.

Lawyers representing federal prosecutors have told borrowers to turn over their cars and cancel their health insurance, debtors said in interviews and court filings. Attorneys have insisted on steep wage garnishments while turning down offers that would have satisfied their obligations over several years.

Borrowers have almost no way out. Because of a 1998 change in federal law, student loans rarely can be discharged through bankruptcy. Unlike most consumer debt, there has been no statute of limitations on collections since 1991.

Brice, 58, said she had no idea that she could be pursued for debts from the 1970s.

“If you are a person who gave to your country, who does the kind of work I do, or is a police officer or firefighter — anyone who gives back to their community — I think the government needs to give you a break,” Brice said in an interview at a Burbank, Calif., coffee shop, after a day of teaching in the Los Angeles school system.

William Goldsmith, an attorney with Goldsmith & Hull, the firm that pursued Brice, referred questions to the Justice Department, which declined to discuss details of borrowers’ cases.

The government’s aggressive collections efforts contrast with President Barack Obama’s recent speeches on student debt that stress his administration’s offers of leniency for strapped borrowers.

During a June 7 speech at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Obama promoted his executive order making it easier for students to sign up for a program that lets borrowers tie loan payments to their incomes. The loans could be forgiven in 20 years.

Even as Obama makes those statements, student-loan borrowers who default are being pursued and punished more severely than just about any other kind of debtor, said Deanne Loonin, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Boston.

“It’s a huge contradiction,” Loonin said in a telephone interview. “It’s misleading to say you’re being more flexible when you’re being so aggressive with people who are already in default.”

The Education Department turns to lawsuits as a last resort, said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman.

Former students must stop making payments for at least four years before they are sued, Hamilton said. The Justice Department gives borrowers a chance to settle their debts before filing a lawsuit, Allison Price, a spokeswoman, said in an email.

Along with the income-based program that Obama cited, the government lets borrowers defer payments if they lose their jobs, Hamilton said. Borrowers in public-service careers, including teachers, can be eligible for loan forgiveness after 10 years of making regular, reduced payments. Brice didn’t qualify because she was in default and had a legal judgment against her.

“We go out of our way to help folks,” Hamilton said in a telephone interview. “It is a very long road to go from default to litigation. For the vast majority of people, we’re able to work with them and get them back into a payment plan.”

More than 5 million borrowers are in default, generally meaning they have stopped making payment for 270 days or more. As of September, they owed $67 billion.

In the year ended Sept. 30, the federal government filed 4,841 lawsuits to recover money from student-loan borrowers, almost three times the number from a year before, according to the Justice Department. Private lawyers filed about 90 percent of the suits. The Justice Department returned $9.4 million to taxpayers, after paying private lawyers and other expenses.

Since 2008, the federal litigation returned $37 million to the Education Department. The private lawyers received $8 million in contingency fees, about 30 percent of the amount that their suits collected, according to data released by the agency.

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