I became an expert in dealing with debt collectors when I decided to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy two years ago. Every time I got a letter from a debt collector, I fired off a letter to assert my legal rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and sent copies to my bankruptcy attorney. Debt collectors hate dealing with people who fight back when they have easier prey to go after. The newest tactic, as reported by The New York Times, is renting the district attorney’s letterhead to scare people into paying under the threat of criminal prosecution.
[The letters] bear the seal and signature of the local district attorney’s office. But there is a catch: the letters are from debt-collection companies, which the prosecutors allow to use their letterhead. In return, the companies try to collect not only the unpaid check, but also high fees from debtors for a class on budgeting and financial responsibility, some of which goes back to the district attorneys’ offices.
Debt collectors have come under fire for illegally menacing people behind on their bills with threats of jail. What makes this approach unusual is that the ultimatum comes with the imprimatur of law enforcement itself — though it is made before any prosecutor has determined a crime has been committed.
Prosecutors say that the partnerships allow them to focus on more serious crimes, and that the letters are sent only to check writers who ignore merchants’ demands for payment. The district attorneys receive a payment from the firms or a small part of the fees collected.
If a civilian impersonates a law enforcement officer, that’s a crime punishable by one year in jail. If a debt collection company impersonates the DA’s office, and money is being exchanged underneath the table as part of a “partnership” that doesn’t benefit the public, that’s business as usual. Or, in the vernacular of the 2012 presidential election, the best government that money can buy. I was shocked—shocked!—to read that the Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) DA’s office was involved in this questionable scheme to shake down consumers.
What do you do if you get one of these letters?
- Call the DA’s office at the county office to determine if the letter was from them or a debt collection company. If the letter is from the DA’s office, read it carefully and take whatever steps needed to avoid further legal action.
- If the letter is from a debt collection company, write a letter asserting your legal rights under the federal FDCPA and request that all communications to be in writing. (Your state may have a similar law that provides additional protections and should also be referenced in all your letters.) This begins the paper trail if you need to file a consumer complaint with your state attorney general’s office.
- If the debt collector has a legitimate debt, pay off what you owe and not a dime extra.
- If the debt collector has the wrong info and/or being abusive, make copies of the paper trail and file a consumer complaint. You need to be aggressive in dealing with these people. Like high school bullies, they will back down from a fight.
Send protest letters to the DA’s office, the county board of supervisors and your congressional representatives to end this insidious practice. The DA’s letterhead should represent the legal authority of the people—not the debt collectors.