When Melanie Little received a call with an Illinois area code, she answered thinking it might be someone from her childhood in southern Illinois.
But it was a collection agency calling about an unpaid traffic ticket in Jefferson County. From 1983. When Little was around 14 years old.
“I wouldn’t have even been legally able to drive,” said Little, who now lives in Florida.
Little is among current or former Illinois residents who have received calls — sometimes repeatedly — from collection agencies hired by counties in the state to collect unpaid tickets, some going back decades.
Of the half-dozen people reached by the Tribune who had been contacted about old tickets, several said they were concerned the records were outdated or wrong, or believed they had paid the ticket but no longer had a receipt. Others wondered whether the call was a scam. Some worried about their credit score.
The practice has been the subject of complaints on social media and with the Better Business Bureau. At least five complaints have been filed with the Illinois attorney general’s office against Credit Collection Partners, which collects debts for nearly half the counties in Illinois.
“We are looking further into the company’s practices,” said Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office. She did not elaborate.
County clerks say they are outsourcing collections to save money while bringing in needed revenue they are owed. But legal and policy experts question the fairness of the practice and warn about overly aggressive tactics by collection agencies that only get paid when they collect on a ticket.
“If I was advising a local government that was considering adopting something like that, I would tell them to be very cautious,” said Chris Goodman, an assistant professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University.
In Little’s case, she gave the collection agent her birth date, and the agent dropped the matter. “I was left thinking, damn the state of Illinois is so broke ... they’re having to track down people from the ’80s to pay traffic tickets," she said.
‘More economical to outsource'
In the last 10 years, Illinois counties have been increasingly moving toward collection agencies for unpaid traffic and other minor tickets, finding it cheaper than doing it themselves, according to Kankakee County Circuit Court Clerk Sandi Cianci, president of the Illinois Association of Court Clerks.
A county can tack on a 30 percent fee to an unpaid ticket that it then pays to the collection agency, Cianci said. “We were exceeding the cost of the 30 percent to do it ourselves,” she said. “It’s more economical to outsource collections.”
Cianci believes most Illinois counties have adopted this model.
One company, Credit Collection Partners, collects debts for 40 of the state’s 102 counties, according to its website. The attorney general’s office said it received five consumer complaints about the agency between 2014 and 2018.
In the most recent complaint, someone contested a notice about owing $154.88 and reported some of the same issues as Little. "I have been contacted by this collection company and I am concerned it is fraud because 1) The name is misspelled 2) the offense date (from Monroe County) was 26 years ago 3) I would have been a minor at the time (17 yrs old). The complaint is ‘Criminal Trespass to Land’ and I don’t think I could forget such a thing.
“Please help me to discover if this is fraud,” the complaint ended.
Asked what relief was being sought, the person wrote: “Discovery of truth”
When contacted by the office, Credit Collection Partners acknowledged that the notice was a mistake and stopped trying to collect, according to the office. Credit Collection Partners did not respond to an inquiry from the Tribune.
Small counties in particular are relying on collection agencies to collect on old debts, according to John Pelissero, a professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago. “Many smaller cities and counties have responded to the decline in intergovernmental aid from (federal and state governments) by looking to increase their own-source revenues, while limiting general tax increases,” he said.
This comes as outsourcing traditional government roles is getting more common, experts say.
Nadav Shoked, a professor of law at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, likened the practice to the city of Chicago’s controversial leasing of its parking meters.
It’s legal because the private contractor is not making decisions about where people can park, Shoked said. Instead, the company is just collecting the resulting funds and so the contractor is not exercising a government function.
Similarly, the collection agents aren’t issuing tickets or fines. “They just collect it after the government decided how much you have to pay," he said.
Still, there is a lot of discretion in debt collection, and that makes the issue murkier, Shoked said. "Some sort of private collection agency is making these decisions about what kind of ancient debts to go after,” he said.
Cianci said the collection agencies can go as far back as counties can find records. But she acknowledged there can be issues with old tickets. “We’re all human. Sometimes things do happen,” she said. “We try to go back and fix it the best we can.”
‘Who’s going to keep a receipt?’
Seth Jumps, who lives in Jackson County, near Carbondale, got a call about six months ago from the same number over and over for several weeks. He finally decided to answer. The caller was a collection agent working for Jackson County.
The agency told Jumps he had two unpaid tickets: a $150 ticket from 2012 for fishing without a license, and a $125 ticket from 2002 for screeching tires. He said the agency didn’t provide him with copies of the tickets, or any other paperwork.
Jumps said he was certain he paid those tickets. He renews his fishing license each year and believes he wouldn’t be able to if he had an unpaid violation. And this was the first time in 16 years that he heard from the county about possible outstanding tickets, he said.
“It was 16 years ago. I have no track record or anything,” Jumps said. “Who’s going to keep a receipt?”
Goodman, from NIU, said someone may be tempted to pay a ticket, rather than fight it, if they don’t have records. He raised concerns about collection agencies choosing whom to pursue.
Shoked said collectors could be more prone to press debtors whom they see as less likely to challenge the debt. “A poor person might be much more easily scared and less likely to keep records,” Shoked said.
Rebecca Hendrick, a professor of public administration at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said it’s not clear what oversight counties exercise over the agencies.
“To what extent are the counties having good oversight over collection agencies?” she asked. “Even if it’s incorrect, maybe someone would be scared enough to pay it.”
The state attorney general’s office said people with concerns about a collection agency can call its consumer fraud hotline numbers: 800-386-5438 in Chicago, 800-243-0618 in Springfield and 800-243-0607 in Carbondale.
It also released the following tips for people who get notices from collectors:
• If you receive a call from someone claiming to be a debt collector, you should ask to whom the money is owed (the creditor), who is calling (a collection agency or debt buyer who has the right to collect on the debt) and the amount the caller claims is owed.
• If you are uncertain whether the caller is legitimate, you can contact the original creditor directly and ask about the debt.
• Write down the names of the people and companies that call you, along with the dates and times they called.
• If the statute of limitations has expired on the debt and they no longer can sue you, you should know that even agreeing to make a small payment toward that debt has the potential to revive the debt, which gives the creditor another chance to sue you in court to collect the debt.