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The number of filings at U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Buffalo reached a staggering new high Wednesday afternoon.

The court finished 1997 with more than 8,100 cases, up 35 percent from the previous record of 6,021 set a year earlier.

Court officials worry that the increase may not be over.

"It's been a phenomenal year. It's just a very sad sign of our times," said Mike Keller, statistical clerk at the Buffalo court. "The numbers are just unbelievable."

The Buffalo court handles bankruptcy cases filed by businesses or residents of Erie, Niagara, Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.

According to Keller and other experts, the continued overuse of credit cards by consumers is the biggest reason why bankruptcy numbers are exploding -- not only locally, but nationwide. A study by The Buffalo News in October estimated that Western New Yorkers would ask the court to excuse them from $134 million in credit card debts for the year.

"About 80 percent of our cases are filed by individual consumers, and a huge portion of their debts -- I'd say up to 60 percent -- are credit card debts," Keller said.

The cases submitted here last year included a bankruptcy filed by a Clarence couple who owed almost $340,000 on 58 credit cards, and one filed by a former Buffalo businessman who ran up more than $300,000 debt on 22 cards.

Banks that hire telephone sales workers to call consumers at home and push credit cards on them are also to blame, said Louis B. Toth Jr., an attorney for the Clarence Center couple.

"Even after they filed their bankruptcy, and even after it was publicized in your newspaper, these people still receive pre-approved credit card applications," Toth said. "What does that tell you?"

Buffalo's two bankruptcy judges also believe the numbers are being pushed upward by problem gamblers who spend their time and money at Casino Niagara, the region's first gambling casino. The Niagara Falls, Ont., casino opened in December 1996.

The record set Wednesday marks the fifth time in this decade that the Buffalo court has set a new high for bankruptcies.

Congress and the National Bankruptcy Review Commission have been considering changes in the bankruptcy code. Critics claim the present system makes filing too easy and collecting debts too difficult.

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