If you’ve ever gotten a nasty letter from a debt collection agency that seemed to have legal authority behind it, because it was written on the letterhead of some lawyer somewhere, the truth is that it’s very likely a ruse between lawyers, DAs and debt collection agencies, and when you finally get scared and pay up, the lawyers take their cut. Ta da!
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.
“The companies are returning thousands of dollars to merchants that is not coming at taxpayer expense,” said Ken Ryken, deputy district attorney with Alameda County.
Consumer lawyers have challenged the debt collectors in courts across the United States, claiming that they lack the authority to threaten prosecution or to ask for fees for classes when no district attorney has reviewed the facts of the cases. The district attorneys are essentially renting out their stationery, the lawyers say, allowing the companies to give the impression that failure to respond could lead to charges, when it rarely does.
“This is guilty until proven innocent,” said Paul Arons, a consumer lawyer in Friday Harbor, Wash., about two hours north of Seattle.
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