Cash-strapped Illinois counties using collection agency to badger drivers over unpaid traffic tickets

Drivers beware. Current and former Illinois residents are complaining that local counties have resorted to hiring a collection agency to harass them over unpaid parking and traffic tickets from as far back as the 1980s.

Under the practice, first reported by the Chicago Tribune, Illinois counties have farmed out fine collection to a private agency in order to cut down on costs and time.

But many of those contacted by the agency, Credit Collection Partners, claim the information in the system is either wrong or outdated -- with some saying they already paid the tickets and just don’t have the receipts. Others simply describe the calls as over the top.

“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," Melanie Little, a former Illinois resident who now lives in Florida, told the Chicago Tribune. Little told the newspaper that she was contacted by the company about an unpaid traffic ticket from 1983, when she was 14 years old.

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Representatives for the Illinois Association of Court Clerks and Credit Collection Partners contest the claims of harassment, arguing they are just doing their job and people are still responsible for paying the fines no matter how long ago they were issued.

“Just because it's 10 years old or 15 years old doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay it,” Becky Jansen, the vice president of Credit Collection Partners, told Fox News. “We’re not going to write off old debt just because people are complaining. We’ve been hired by these counties to collect the money and we’re going to do our best for the court system.”

Jansen added: “The court system doesn’t have the time, money or resources to collect these fines.”

Credit Collection Partners collects debts for nearly half the counties in Illinois.

Jansen’s assertion was echoed by Kankakee County Circuit Court Clerk Sandi Cianci, who is the current president of the Illinois Association of Court Clerks.

Cianci said that on top of the original fines, counties collect an additional 30 percent, but with the time, work and court costs put into tracking down and getting people to pay the fines, it was financially more practical to hire a third party to do the work.

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“The cost was just too much,” she told Fox News. “And when we get the money, it gets dispersed to 50 or 60 different entities so that sometimes we only get a quarter from each case.”

At least five complaints have been lodged against the collection agency with the Illinois attorney general’s office – along with a slew of grievances lodged on social media and with the Better Business Bureau. Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said in an email to Fox News that the state is “looking further into the company’s practices.”

Jansen balked at the assertions of aggressive tactics used to collect fines, saying that Credit Collection Partners does not use intimidation schemes to collect debts and the company has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.

The complaints lodged on the Better Business Bureau website range from incorrect information to failure to remove the debt from people’s credit reports.

“The debt was for unpaid traffic fines and court costs for Macon County, IL., a place I have never been,” one person wrote in a complaint to the BBB. “I have also never received any traffic citations anywhere.”

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The unnamed person added: “I was advised my name would be removed from their list, and I again asked how they came to contact me when I was not the person they were looking for. My question was not answered. In the next several weeks, I have received daily calls from this alleged business at my home phone… I am not the person they are looking for, but I am harassed by these people.”

Janson told Fox News that in the incidents where the information was incorrect, the company has fixed the issue and nobody’s credit score has been adversely affected by their collection efforts.

While the practice of outsourcing the collection of unpaid fines is completely legal, experts say counties should use caution when doing so and make sure there is proper oversight.

“To what extent are the counties having good oversight over collection agencies?” Rebecca Hendrick, a professor of public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the Tribune. “Even if it’s incorrect, maybe someone would be scared enough to pay it.”