Imagine the fright you would feel if you check your mail and see a letter from the IRS Audit Division. You might experience a similar sinking feeling getting an envelope from the local district attorney suggesting some wrongdoing on your part.
When you open the envelope, inside is a letter from the district attorney on his letterhead, official seal and all, that proclaims “Official Notice – Immediate Attention Required.” It goes to say that you have been accused of bouncing a check, and that according to the criminal law of your particular state, you could be imprisoned for up to X years and face a fine of Y dollars. However, if you participate in the “Bad Check Restitution Program,” repay all the money, take a class on financial responsibility, and pay a variety of fees, the district attorney will drop any criminal charges it could file against you and consider the case closed.
Here is page one of a sample four-page letter (click to enlarge) similar to ones used by about 140 DAs in 13 states:
In your fright, you probably didn’t read the letter carefully, and may have missed a key point:
“The Bad Check Restitution Program is administered by a private entity under contract with the XXX County District Attorney.”
So this letter is NOT actually from the local district attorney, but rather from a private debt collection company that is using the stationery of the local DA to very effectively scare the you-know-what out of the recipient as a means of collecting the debt (and their fees).
Speaking of their fees, this is a very lucrative business for these debt collectors, and most of the DAs even get a small cut of the proceeds. In one Massachusetts county, for example, when fees are added, the cost of bouncing a check could inflate the total you owe to two or three times the original check amount.
This can’t be legal, you are probably saying. Well, the district attorneys and the private debt collectors in this line of business lobbied Congress, and received an exemption from the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. That law actually makes illegal many of the practices allegedly engaged in by these people. For example, using envelopes that disclose that the contents relate to a debt, threatening arrest or criminal prosecution when such action is not actually taken or contemplated, impersonating a law enforcement agency, and charging fees beyond those disclosed in the original contract are all prohibited practices.
Some state laws have their own debt collection laws with similar provisions, and it appears that these bad check programs may be running afoul of them in some cases.
The Boston Globe [alternate link] just published the results of its four-month investigation into the practices of the DAs and their debt collection companies in Massachusetts. And the New York Times looked at the workings of these programs across the country. Be sure to look at the graphics in the NY Times story for copies of the actual letters sent to check bouncers.