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Prosecutors Team With Debt Collectors to Terrorize Consumers

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"We have members that collect on behalf of the government, from federal student loans to meter fines," says Mark Schiffman of the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, the industry's largest trade association. "We can't put the logo of a government agency on our letterhead. We can't say we're from the Department of Education. We have to say that we're 'ABC,' a company working on behalf of the Department of Education."

Yet Congress created a loophole in 2006, granting what amounts to immunity from deception charges for collection agencies working on behalf of law enforcement.

Corrective Solutions paid handsomely for the bill. Between 2003 and 2006, the company spent more than $660,000 on lobbying. It also slathered donations on key senators like Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd, who would later leave office after accepting a sweetheart deal from a mortgage company.

The exemption essentially allowed companies like Corrective Solutions, BounceBack and Check Diversion Program to operate above the law. They can send out notices on DA letterhead, threaten people with jail time and rake in upwards of $200 in fines per person. And it's all perfectly legal.

"While the rest of us are playing by the rules, they aren't," Schiffman says.

Consumer advocates and legal experts naturally were horrified. "You don't hand out guns and badges to just anyone," says Adam Levin, the former consumer-affairs commissioner of New Jersey. "And this is effectively creating a gun-and-badge situation for people who frankly not only don't deserve it, but have a long history of abusing it."

Paul Arons, a Washington state consumer-rights lawyer, agrees. What's startling, he says, isn't the shady tactics of companies like Corrective Solutions; it's the fact that district attorneys, charged with protecting the public good, are abetting the deception.

"Check collectors have a long history of running scams like pretending they'll have people arrested, or that they are with government agencies," says Arons. "I was shocked to find out that prosecutors were actually authorizing check collectors to do this in district attorneys' names."

Congress did include a small caveat in the 2006 bill that was supposed to protect citizens. "The prosecutor must determine that probable cause exists to charge a person with a crime before the program sends the letter," Levin says. Unfortunately, they're universally blowing this off.

Take the Riverside DA's Office. Chief Deputy Vicki Hightower says her program is meant to target bad-check writers who intend to defraud victims, not well-meaning people who accidentally bounce a check.

"We understand the concerns people have," Hightower says. "That's why we review the checks before they go to Corrective Solutions. And while the correspondence that goes out has our logo, it does say that the program is administered by a third-party vendor."

Yet her words don't appear to match the facts on the ground. In order to open a bad-check case in Riverside, merchants only need to provide the check writer's information, along with the promise that they tried contacting them at least once. But Riverside's own records show that it is routinely threatening jail time for people who've done nothing criminal.

During the first 10 months of 2012, Corrective Solutions sent out 8,973 letters on Riverside's behalf. Just 23 of those cases were deemed worthy of prosecution.

Florida's Miami-Dade County is even more lax. There, merchants' complaints go directly to Corrective Solutions, which then decides which ones merit prosecution.

"Our office has set the intake criteria for checks to be accepted into the program," says Assistant State Attorney Marie Jo Toussaint. "This criteria insures that only checks which have violated our Florida statutes are eligible for this pre-arrest diversion program."

Again, the records say otherwise. Of the 1,863 cases opened by Corrective Solutions, only 106 were actually filed in criminal court.

"There is no question that defrauding someone is a crime," says Kara Dansky, an ACLU lawyer. "But in these circumstances, there is no evidence that's what happened. People could have written a check on accident, with no intent to defraud. But the DA isn't investigating that . . . Instead, debt-collection companies are using the auspices of the DA's office to threaten someone with jail when there is no investigation."


Corrective Solutions had good reason to buy immunity from Congress. At the time, the industry was losing one class-action lawsuit after another.

In 2004, Kristy Schwarm was a stay-at-home mother of five in Ukiah, California, with another child on the way. Over the course of one week, Schwarm wrote a check to Walmart for $69.26 and one to FoodMaxx for $83.41, and made an ATM withdrawal, according to court records.

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Denise Grollmus
Contact: Denise Grollmus