Of all the debt collection scams, the ones that inspire the greatest panic come over the phone. A menacing, often almost incomprehensible voice, claiming to represent a creditor, demands immediate payment of a supposed debt. Otherwise, the caller threatens, the consumer could be arrested and thrown in jail.
"Outrageous!" we tell the many consumers who contact us every week seeking help after being cowed and frightened by these bullies' threats. To each of them, we repeat the same advice: "Ignore their calls. Report them to local law enforcement."
But what if local law enforcement is the source of those threats?
In some 300 communities across the United States, that's exactly what's happening. From Baltimore to Los Angeles, prosecuting attorneys are renting out their letterhead -- and their law enforcement clout and credibility -- to debt collection companies, as a recent exposé in the New York Times revealed. Using the name and official seal of the prosecutor's office to give weight to their threats, these private companies -- with no legal authority whatsoever -- then send out letters to debt-challenged consumers threatening criminal prosecution and possible jail time if they don't pay up.
And here's the kicker: having convinced consumers that they'll end up in handcuffs if they don't cover their supposed debts, these weasels then try to dupe them into shelling out another $170 or so for a class on financial responsibility. Where does that money go? It's split between the debt collection company and (wait for it) the prosecutor's office.
How bad does this stink? Let me count the ways.
First of all, the district attorney is an elected representative with a sacred public trust: to enforce the rule of law. Before prosecuting a case, the prosecutor's office has a duty to weigh the evidence, evaluate possible outcomes, and choose the course that best serves the public. That process should be thoughtful and impartial, with all citizens treated equally before the law, to ensure that justice is served in each and every instance.
When we elect a DA, we're entrusting them with the power and prestige of the American criminal justice system -- not inviting them to pass out guns and badges to random individuals with agendas of their own. And we most assuredly do not want them empowering private parties to pose, even implicitly, as public prosecutors -- especially in pursuit of private gain.
This is one of many reasons why, if we do start deputizing private businesses, debt collectors might not be the best place to start. For one thing, as recent news reports show, we can't always count on them to tell the truth. The case at hand is a case in point.