Longform

Prosecutors Team With Debt Collectors to Terrorize Consumers

Page 4 of 6

Between 2005 and 2008, Los Angeles County raked in more than $1 million. Miami-Dade made over $375,000.

When asked whether Miami-Dade's program was little more than a moneymaking scheme, Toussaint balks.

"Diverting such cases out of the criminal justice system gives an individual with no prior record an opportunity to avoid having a criminal record," she says. "It makes the victim receiver of the worthless check whole, and it is done with no cost to the taxpaying citizens of our community. Pre-trial diversion programs also allow the courts to focus on other types of criminal activity."

But while prosecutors claim they use collection agencies to decrease caseloads, some companies actually promise to expand them — for the sole purpose of generating more money.

Take BounceBack, the industry's second-largest player. It owns Check Connection, and makes no bones that generating fees is mission one.

"Is your program suffering from diminishing checks?" asks the company's website. "Visit Check Connection to learn how you can substantially increase the number of checks in your bad check program."

The site offers examples from places like Palm Beach County, Florida, which switched to BounceBack in 2006 after "merchants and other victims were complaining that they felt intimidated by the people administering the program. Check writers complained of strong-arm collection tactics."

Since then, Palm Beach has "passed the $1.5 million mark."

BounceBack won't discuss its business practices, believing it's been unfairly vilified by the media. "The press usually doesn't take anything that we say seriously, so we've begun to decline to make comments," says company vice president Gale Krieg.

Still, prosecutors eagerly rise to the industry's defense.

"They're not just some debt-collection company," Louis Alvarez, head of the Los Angeles DA's check program, says of Corrective Solutions. "What they are doing is trying to help us recoup money for victims."

The real victims, at least in Alvarez's mind, aren't math-challenged consumers, but merchants who lose more than $120 billion annually to bad checks, according to the Federal Reserve. He argues that Corrective Solutions is simply helping his overburdened and underfunded office get restitution — while "rehabilitating" check writers who are likely guilty of fraud.

"We do get people who made a mistake, but a good majority of the students who take our class say that they just procrastinated and didn't intend to pay until they saw the mail from the DA's office."

Yet once again, internal records dispel any notion of rampant criminality. In 2011, Correction Solutions sent out 33,202 letters on behalf of L.A. County. Fewer than 1 percent of those cases were actually recommended for prosecution.

"They've prosecuted more glue sniffers than bad-check writers in a lot of these counties," Arons says. "This is not an overwhelming problem. The feds keep stats on this, and only one in every 200 checks doesn't clear. And of those, about half clear on redeposit, so we're talking about 0.5 percent of all checks written."

It's hard to fault prosecutors for ridding themselves of a nuisance. Fraud charges require investigations, and most prosecutors have nowhere near the manpower to handle them, admits Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.

"The real issue is that prosecutors' offices are, almost across the board, underfunded, while suffering hiring freezes and, in some offices, up to 30 percent cuts in personnel," he says. "The only logical thing is to prioritize those cases and those issues that are the most important."

But by ridding themselves of a headache, they're creating a new one for consumers, who are presumed guilty without investigation or chance of appeal.

That's the basic sentiment of Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney. He believes that if a check writer ignores contact by a merchant, that's proof enough of a crime. "Your failure to make good on that check is an issue of intent. The opportunity to make good and not take advantage of that opportunity speaks to your attitude."

Griffith argues that even innocent mistakes merit sentencing to financial-accountability class. "Even if someone says that their child overdrew their account, we believe putting them in a diversion program is the right move."

Yet some believe the classes are just a ruse to generate fees. "Their financial-responsibility class is nothing more than learning how to balance a checkbook," says Adam Levin, New Jersey's former consumer-affairs commissioner. "It's garbage. If people aren't passing a bad check with intent, they shouldn't be going to a class. And if they are, they shouldn't be going to a class; they should be going to jail. Don't tax overburdened consumers with a course that is effectively worthless."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Denise Grollmus
Contact: Denise Grollmus