Consider what’s happening here. The debt collection companies are using the letterhead of the prosecutor’s office to threaten consumers with criminal prosecution and possible jail time. In reality, they’re in no position to back that threat up — but from reading the letter, the consumer has no way to know that. The truth is that in the vast majority of cases, the prosecutor’s office has no idea when these letters are mailed or who is receiving them, and has conducted no investigation to determine whether the claim of unpaid debt is actually true. Thus, the debt collectors are apparently mailing official letters without effective oversight — and often without even having the evidence they would need to prove that the recipients actually owe the alleged debts. In short, no case.
“I would say that roughly 90 percent of the credit card lawsuits are flawed and can’t prove the person owes the debt,” Noach Dear, a civil court judge in Brooklyn who sees up to 100 such cases a day, told the New York Times.
This is, indeed, outrageous. To have prosecuting attorneys renting out their letterhead to private companies at all diminishes their office and, at the end of the day, betrays the public trust. To do this without weighing the merits of each individual case betrays the fundamental American ideal of due process and turns the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” on its head. Finally, to allow private companies to use the power and prestige of public office to coerce consumers, using the fear of criminal charges and imprisonment to bully them into compliance — well, that is so clearly abusive that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could defend it (not that they haven’t tried).
Debt collectors have a terrible reputation in this country for misconduct and often direct law breaking. For prosecutors to form an alliance with them, loaning them some of the powers of the state, is simply unconscionable.
I’m not the only one that thinks so – here’s J.F. Quackenbush from the web site, Disinformation:
So here’s the deal, it’s a crime to write a bad check if you know that the bank isn’t going to honor the instrument. But in most states, in order to be convicted the State has to prove that you knew the check was going to bounce when you wrote it. That’s hard which is as it should be, because the crime here is not owing a debt, it’s fraud. We don’t do debtors prisons anymore, and for good reason. Bankruptcy law is explicitly mandated by the Constitution because it has long been understood that not all debts are equal, and sometimes it’s for the best in our society if we just let people off the hook and give them a clean financial slate to start over.
This, of course, drives the vampires of the collection industry, who make money by buying debts for pennies on the dollar and then brutalizing the people who owe those debts who can’t afford to pay them, and in the meantime making all manner of threats and coercive promises to keep those debtors out of bankruptcy so that the vampires can continue to feed.
And here are some more thoughts on the subject from Caveot Emptor, Seeking Justice for Consumers –
Prosecutors’ job is to enforce the law. One important part of that job is exercising some discretion over who to prosecute. That’s especially important in bad check cases. People bounce checks all the time, usually unintentionally. That doesn’t make them crimes. So a prosecutor’s job is to sort out the crimes from the accidents. Under the new arrangement, everybody gets contacted by a debt collector, which then demands even more money for a budgeting class — the profit from which goes into the collector’s pocket.
Here are some thoughts from Naked Capitalism –
The excuse for this program is that district attorneys’ offices were overwhelmed with merchant requests to go after bounced checks where they were unable to collect the debt and alleged fraud. Um, what about saying “no” unless the amount at issue was significant, say at least a few hundred dollars, or having the merchant provide evidence of intent? Instead, this scheme allows the debt collectors to get a windfall from people who’ve stuffed up on relatively small checks (the two examples in the article were each under $100) as well as contributing to erosion of public faith in the legal system.
Consumer attorneys did succeed in getting one debt collector that engaged in this practice, American Corrective Counseling Services, to file for Chapter 11 in the face of class action suits. But its successor CorrectiveSolutions carries on with the same dubious practices and has “partnerships” with more than 140 district attorneys’ offices.