Because having a checking account while poor doesn't just mean you have to be responsible and good at math -- you have to be perfect. Meticulous, flawless record keeping is the difference between surviving and having the bank seize your next paycheck.It turns out things are even worse than Cheese thought according to this excellent article by Denise Grollmus:
In May, she wrote a check for $91 at an Albertson's grocery store. A few days later, while reviewing her bank account, she noticed that the check had bounced. Orr headed back to Albertson's to make good on her payment. But she was told that 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 district attorney's office. It inexplicably accused her of intent to commit fraud, noting that she was now eligible for "up to one year in the county jail." The only way to avoid criminal charges: participate in the county's "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 $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 phone 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."
In fact, Orr had contacted Corrective Solutions, a private company from San Clemente. According to its website, it handles bad-check cases for 140 district attorneys nationwide — jurisdictions that oversee 65 million people, from Colorado to Florida, Michigan to Washington.
Consider it the privatizing of justice. Instead of investigating bad-check complaints, prosecutors simply pass them along to Corrective Solutions. The company then uses official DA letterhead to threaten jail time if consumers don't pay up. Corrective Solutions also runs the "voluntary" financial-accountability classes, and prosecutors get a cut of the profits while barely lifting a finger.
The entire system runs on a one-size-fits-all presumption of guilt. No one's bothering to investigate whether the check-writer was working a scam or merely suffering from a momentary lapse of mathematics.
Orr e-mailed Corrective Solutions, saying she'd be happy to repay the $91 plus a $50 fee, though she wanted to skip the "voluntary" class, which she couldn't afford.
Corrective Solutions didn't respond — but the threatening letters kept coming.
"That's what they do," Arons says. "Whenever we win one of these cases, they declare bankruptcy in order to avoid paying out damages. It's absolutely maddening."
The same thing had happened a year earlier, when Arons won a similar suit against American Corrective Counseling Services. A federal court ruled that, despite the company's claims of immunity, it had misrepresented itself, made false threats of prosecution and charged exorbitant penalties.
Once again, Arons's clients were unable to collect on their victory. American Corrective also declared bankruptcy, saying it couldn't repay investors — despite having collected $47 million in fees over the previous four years.
A few months later it was back in business, re-formed as Corrective Solutions and "free and clear" of all liability, according to court records.
Today it's the biggest bad-check collector of them all.
Consumer-rights lawyers estimate the company sends out around 2 million letters annually. (The company did not respond to repeated interview requests.)
The Corrective Solutions website does its best to imply that it's an arm of law enforcement. A slide show gently fades in and out with statements about "holding offenders accountable for their actions." An interactive map shows its 140 contracts with DAs nationwide.
Nowhere does it say that most of these "offenders" have never been investigated or formally charged with a crime.
The site boasts dozens of quotes from pleased prosecutors, who sing praises of reduced caseloads and crime rates. Contra Costa District Attorney Robert Kochly offers the most telling endorsement, noting he's grateful for "more revenue to my office."
District attorneys don't pay a cent for Corrective Solutions' services. Instead, the company pays them to run their bad-check programs. All a prosecutor must do is hand over official letterhead, along with a list of bad-check writers and a bit of "case criteria."
Between 2005 and 2008, Los Angeles County raked in more than $1 million. Miami-Dade made over $375,000.