Sunday, September 16, 2012

In Prosecutors, Debt Collectors Find a Partner

It's bad enough that merchants use prosecutors to collect on bad checks when that's really a civil matter that the merchants should handle for themselves. 
But then a few years ago, the merchants started sending out letters offering to "drop the prosecution" of a civil claim if the accused shoplifter sends money.  What they don't tell people is that "dropping the prosecution" of a civil case does not stop the prosecution of a criminal case.
I routinely advise people to ignore those letters.  Unfortunately, people get intimidated and pay up. 
But now, the letters are bearing the seal of the DA's office?  That's outrageous.  Fortunately, it isn't happening it Georgia.  Yet. 
The letters are sent by the thousands to people across the country who have written bad checks, threatening them with jail if they do not pay up.
They bear the seal and signature of the local district attorney’s office. But there is a catch: the letters are from debt-collection companies, which the prosecutors allow to use their letterhead. In return, the companies try to collect not only the unpaid check, but also high fees from debtors for a class on budgeting and financial responsibility, some of which goes back to the district attorneys’ offices.
The practice, which has spread to more than 300 district attorneys’ offices in recent years, shocked Angela Yartz when she was threatened with conviction over a $47.95 check to Walmart. A single mother in San Mateo, Calif., Ms. Yartz said she learned the check had bounced only when she opened a letter in February, signed by the Alameda County district attorney, informing her that unless she paid $280.05 — including $180 for a “financial accountability” class — she could be jailed for up to one year.

- John