Jan 25 2013
LA Weekly: How Debt Collectors Get Away With Terrorizing Consumers — With the Blessing of Public Officials
In just a few years, she’s gone from running a successful advertising business to being a single mom on disability. Hers is a dilemma of American life: A leg injury keeps her from working, but she can’t afford the surgery to fix it without health insurance.
Yet Orr doesn’t make excuses for the fact that she wrote a bum check at the grocery store. “Sure, we’ve fallen on tough times,” says the 54-year-old from Riverside. “But I’ve never bounced a check before in my life. I’ve always been on top of my finances.”
Accidentally overdrawing one’s bank account isn’t a crime. It is, however, a hyper-lucrative business that allows banks to collect $30 billion a year in overdraft fees while their customers frantically swim back to the surface. Such is the bounty of faulty math.
So Orr was shocked when she received a letter from the Riverside district attorney’s office accusing her of fraud.
In May, she wrote a check for $91 at an Albertson’s grocery store. A few days later, while reviewing her bank account, she noticed that the check had bounced. Orr headed back to Albertson’s to make good on her payment. But she was told that the store had already placed her in collection. It was out of the grocer’s hands.
A month later, Orr received a letter from the district attorney’s office. It inexplicably accused her of intent to commit fraud, noting that she was now eligible for “up to one year in the county jail.” The only way to avoid criminal charges: Participate in the county’s “voluntary” bad-check restitution program.
“The letter really made me think I’d go to jail if I didn’t,” she says.
But the DA wanted more than Albertson’s $91 back. Though California law restricts the penalty on bad checks to $25, the letter demanded $333.51, which included $175 for a “voluntary” financial-accountability class she’d have to take.
Orr didn’t even consider arguing her innocence. She just wanted the problem solved. So she called the toll-free number on the letter to make arrangements to pay in cash at the sheriff’s department. When she was told she could only send a check to a P.O. box, Orr grew suspicious.
“That’s when I asked if I was actually talking to someone in the DA’s office,” she says. “And they said no, that they were a company being paid to represent the DA.”
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