I had to read the following article twice, which ran in The New York Times on September 15, 2012, because it was so troubling:
In a nutshell, debt collection attorneys are sending out letters - utilizing a prosecutor's letterhead - to people who have written bad checks. These letters threaten the consumers with jail time if they do not pay the amount of the bounced check, plus other large fees. Here is a link to an example of this kind of collection letter:
This is an abusive process. It is certainly possible the shopper lacked any intent to pass a bad check and merely made a mistake. Could you imagine writing a check that bounced by accident and a few weeks later receiving a letter that appears to be from a prosecutor telling you to pay up or face jail time? It is most disturbing the article reports that one consumer's "bad check was sent directly from the merchant to the debt-collection company, without any prosecutor determining whether she had actually committed a crime." Normally, before being charged with a crime, a person's actions are fully reviewed by the police and/or prosecutors to ensure the alleged behavior rises to the level of crime. I realize the recipient of the letter has not been formally charged with a crime here, but the letter is misleading and certainly causes confusion, and I am sure many of the recipients believe they are being charged with a crime.
This is a deceitful scam by debt collection lawyers. They seek to scare the heck out of people, and then turn a quick profit, and unfortunately, it is probably successful as consumers are paying quickly to avoid the threat of jail. Moreover, it is my understanding that it is not a high priority for law enforcement to target check bouncers, so it is doubtful whether many of these actions would ever be prosecuted. And who sets the fees that must be paid beyond the amount of the check...the collection attorneys? Is that fair and just? Where is the due process or governmental oversight? How could the State of California actually sanction such abusive treatment of consumers? Isn't it unethical for attorneys to engage in misleading communications with the public? Shouldn't the state bar associations be cracking down on these abuses.
The article did not mention whether these troubling debt collection letters have been mailed to New Yorkers, although I want to believe that the New York State Bar would proscribe such unethical actions under the New York Rules for Professional Conduct. If anyone becomes aware of such letters arriving here in New York, please contact me as I would like to see if I can be helpful to the affected consumer.
James Maisano, Esq. is a practicing attorney who also serves on the Westchester Board of Legislators. Check out Jim’s website at www.JamesMaisanoEsq.com, and you can also find this post on his Legal Blog (please see disclaimer on the Legal Blog). Jim’s law office can be contacted at [email protected] or (914) 636-1621