Prosecutors across the country team with debt collectors to terrorize consumers in ways both highly profitable and usually illegal
Julie Orr has plenty of reasons to bounce a check.
In just a few years, she has 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 without health insurance.
Yet Orr says her woes weren't what led her to write a bum check at the grocery store. “Sure, we've fallen on tough times,” says the 54-year-old. “But I've never bounced a check before in my life. I've always been on top of my finances.”
Accidentally overdrawing on a bank account isn't a crime. It is, however, a hyperlucrative business, allowing banks to collect $30 billion per year in overdraft fees while their customers frantically swim back to the surface. Such is the bounty of faulty math.
Orr was shocked when she received a letter from the Riverside County district attorney's office accusing her of fraud. In May, she had written a check for $91 at an Albertsons. A few days later, while reviewing her bank account, she noticed the check had bounced. Orr headed back to Albertsons to make good on her payment. But she was told the store had already placed her in collections. It was out of the grocer's hands.
A month later, Orr received a letter from the county DA's office. It inexplicably accused her of intent to commit fraud, noting she was now eligible for “up to one year in the county jail.” The only way to avoid criminal charges: participate in a “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 the store'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 1-800 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.”
This story originally appeared in OC Weekly; read the remainder of the story here.
Read Nick Miller's local sidebar, “Checkmate in Sacramento,” and learn more about Sacramento-area prosecutors teaming up with CorrectiveSolutions.