It doesn’t matter how much of a morning person you are: No one enjoys answering an unexpected knock on the door at 7 a.m., let alone from someone you don’t know. Now imagine the stranger is there to tell you you’re being sued over a debt that isn’t yours. That’s a rough way to start the day.
For Rich Snapp, that was the morning of Sept. 16, 2015. It was a bad Wednesday, but it was just the beginning of a bizarre and frustrating ordeal that lasted more than seven months and involved a persistent debt collector, the local police department, a (possibly) fictional thief who goes by “Pistol Pete” and the Girl Scouts of Utah.
Snapp was a victim of fraud: Someone used his old checkbook to buy $36 of Girl Scout cookies, the check bounced and the Girl Scouts of Utah hired a debt collector to pursue the person who appeared to have written the bad check. In fact, they went after Snapp for $455.89, including the original $36, plus interest, attorney fees damages and other fees a collector can charge under Utah law.
“I’m annoyed, mostly because, obviously, I didn’t do anything wrong to begin with,” Snapp said in an interview with Credit.com in July, after the court action over the debt had been dismissed. “This weighed on my conscience, if I was going to have to do more or if I was going to get into trouble.”
The situation bothered Snapp on many levels. The early morning court summons, unpleasant phone calls with the debt collector, having to prove he was a victim of fraud, the months of waiting for a resolution—he felt he was wronged, but a Credit.com investigation didn’t find any instances of wrongdoing on the part of the debt collector. What we found is something many people who have had similar issues know to be true: Even when a debt collector does everything by the book, it’s often still a horrible experience for the consumer.
Don’t Underestimate the Threat of Identity Theft
Before any of this could happen, someone had to take Snapp’s checkbook. In December 2014, Snapp moved, and during this process, he found an old checkbook from a closed account. Because everything in the checkbook was no longer accurate—everything except his name—he tossed it in the trash.
“I probably should have shredded it,” Snapp said. “I didn’t really think about it, because it was an account that had been closed a year.”
As he loaded his moving truck, Snapp saw a man with a flashlight rifling through the dumpster behind his apartment complex.
“I actually went upstairs to look up (laws) on the internet, because I was a little bit miffed. I knew I had just chucked my stuff in there,” Snapp said. “There was no law against it in the city I was in. I was pretty sure I didn’t throw out anything that was a big deal.”
A few months later, Snapp got a call from the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake informing him they had found one of Snapp’s checks on a man who had been arrested. The check for $350 was written out to and endorsed by the man, according to the police report, and the man told the officers the check was given to him by a man known as “Pistol Pete.”
The police report is dated April 18, 2015. What Snapp didn’t know is that a month earlier, someone had also used his checks for something else: to satisfy a hankering for Girl Scout cookies.
The Girl Scouts & the Debt Collector
A lot of companies don’t accept checks because they’re a favorite tool among fraudsters. A lot of time passes between a merchant accepting a check and the merchant’s bank processing the payment, giving someone plenty of time to walk away with the goods before a seller realizes they’ve been stiffed. But checks are an important part of the Girl Scout cookie business: not everyone has cash on hand, and Scouts aren’t generally walking around with a mobile point-of-sale system to instantly process a credit card payment.
That’s the direction they’re trying to go, according to Janet Frasier, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Utah, but until they are equipped to take electronic payments, checks are a good option.
That means taking on the risk that people will buy cookies with bad checks.
“The actual decision to accept checks or credit cards or cash is made primarily at the troop level and the community level,” Frasier said. “However, it has been our practice that if checks were accepted by girls and their troops that, should there be bad checks, the council (the Girl Scouts of Utah) … would be responsible. We don’t leave the girls liable for those funds.”
Frasier said the policy to pursue people who write bad checks to the Scouts predates her tenure at the organization, but it’s based on the belief that “when people don’t honor their check, that is basically taking money directly from those girls.”
The intended message: don’t take money from little girls. But to someone receiving a debt collection notice over a $36 check for cookies, it can come across another way: petty. On top of that, Frasier said that the number of bad checks that come in is “extremely low” and the amount of money they write off in losses is “extremely, extremely low.”
So why even put forth the effort to go after people?
“That’s a good question,” Frasier said. “I think that situations like this are exactly what triggers me as a executive to think that we need to go back and look at processes and review how we’re currently looking at things.”
But for the time being, that’s the policy, and if you write a bad check to a girl selling cookies for the Girl Scouts of Utah, you’re going to find yourself dealing with Cherrington Law Firm, who collects for them.
The Rough Business of Debt Collection
Because the contact information on Snapp’s old checks was out of date, it’s unsurprising that the debt collector had trouble tracking him down, and if early debt collection attempts are unsuccessful, the next step is sometimes legal action. The summons Snapp received on Sept. 16, 2015, stated he had 21 days to respond to the summons, and he called Cherrington Law Firm the same day.
He said the conversations got heated. He said the debt collector wanted personal information to confirm Snapp’s identity, which Snapp didn’t feel comfortable giving, and eventually, the person hung up on him. He called the police department and asked for the file number on the police report detailing the “Pistol Pete” stolen check incident, but when he called back the debt collector with the file number, the person on the phone said it wasn’t sufficient to prove he was a victim of fraud. He would need to obtain a hard copy of the report (meaning he had to go to the police station and pay for copies of the records) and send it to them. This time, Snapp hung up in frustration.
“I need the consumer’s help to show me that it’s fraud,” said Lacey Cherrington, an attorney and owner of the debt collection company. “Until I can see information from the consumer that it’s not their signature, then I have to continue to assume it’s theirs.”
Cherrington said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of Snapp’s case but said police departments often aren’t willing to give copies of police reports to third-party debt collectors—the consumer will have an easier time getting that. As far as Snapp’s frustration for having to pay for the police report ($10) and sending it by certified mail to the debt collector, Cherrington said she is sympathetic to that feeling but pointed out the consumer isn’t the only one caught up in the fraud.
“The consumer needs to understand that the original creditor had to pay bank fees for the returned check,” Cherrington said. Referring to the out-of-pocket costs consumers may incur in proving they’re victims of fraud: “That’s a risk we all take to have to show that a debt is not ours.”
What You Can Do About Debt-Collector Woes
It wasn’t just the fees and the trips to the clerk’s office and the police station that made Snapp unhappy. He didn’t understand how the debt collector could legally pursue him for more than $400, when the bad check was only $36 (and fraudulent). He researched the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and wondered if his rights had been violated at any point.
For example, Snapp was annoyed when the process server “pounded on his door” at 7:10 a.m., given that the FDCPA says a debt collector can’t call you before 8 a.m. in your time zone. But that was fair game: A process server isn’t a third-party debt collector and isn’t subject to the FDCPA.
Snapp said he felt like he was harassed every time he was on the phone with the collector, but tough talk isn’t necessarily harassment. (Regarding the tense conversations, Cherrington said: “If there was a phone call that the consumer felt got heated, it was simply us trying to gather the information the consumer needed to show that this was a fraudulent check.”)
After he submitted his written response contesting the debt on Sept. 16, the collector never again initiated contact—the three times they had contact after that, Snapp was the one who reached out. They never again contacted him until he received the written notice on May 16, 2016, that the action had been dismissed. (Cherrington said this case took longer than usual to resolve but declined to specify why.)
It’s an unsatisfying ending for everyone involved: Cherrington Law Firm got nowhere in resolving its client’s issue. The Girl Scouts of Utah are still out $36 (plus interest and whatever bank fees they incurred, hence the steep bill Snapp was facing). Snapp is worried this could happen again, because he threw out a nearly full checkbook. For the months it took to resolve this mess, he wondered if he was going to get in legal trouble for something he didn’t do. Meanwhile, somewhere in Utah, someone else got to enjoy a few boxes of Girl Scout cookies. The whole thing is pretty discouraging.
But there are a few things you can take away from this debacle: Shred everything. Keep good records. Know your rights when dealing with a debt collector, because even though it’s probably going to be unpleasant, debt collectors sometimes cross the line, and you could sue them for violating the FDCPA. Of course, taking legal action isn’t cheap, so you could also consider filing complaints with agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the Better Business Bureau. And, if you do owe a collector, it’s a good idea to learn how the debt may be affecting your credit. (You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and view two of your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.)
Christine DiGangi writes for Credit.com, where this article originally appeared.