York County launches program to track down bad checks

Writing a $25 fraudulent check could lead to an arrest warrant and prosecution by the solicitor's office after the York County Council last week supported the creation of a worthless check collections unit.

Because it's a crime to write a check without money to back it up, the collections unit will track down the money no matter how minute. Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett asked the County Council last week for permission to establish the unit.

"Bad checks written in small amounts are not always chased," Brackett said. "The check unit is a one-stop shop. They send us a check. We take care of it."

The money needed to start the unit is in the existing solicitor's office budget. Once the unit is started, Brackett said the fines and fees from collecting on bad checks will pay for its operation.

That's the case in the 7th and 11th Circuit solicitor's offices. Debbie Hester, director of the worthless check unit in the 11th Circuit, said she operates "a very successful unit."

"We have five people in the office, and funds from fines and fees generate all of our salaries," Hester said. "It's 100 percent free, supported by the checks we bring in. We take all the work out of it."

The Lexington County check unit started in 2003 and covers all four counties in the 11th Circuit. From January through August, more than 4,300 checks were processed, Hester said.

York County's unit will start with one person, but Brackett said they may have to expand as the service takes off.

In the 7th Circuit, Spartanburg and Cherokee counties have recuperated $1.5 million since they started the program three years ago. That unit, run by a part-time employee and three full-time employees, also pays for itself, said Murray Glenn, spokesman for 7th Circuit solicitor's office.

"It's a great program for us. It's fast, efficient and free," Glenn said. "We're providing a service that was once very time-consuming and not easy to do. Our collection rate is remarkably good."

Any business or individual who is written a fraudulent check in return for goods or services could take advantage of this service. Most fraudulent checks are in small amounts, and Brackett said recovering that money can be a long process.

"It's difficult to chase these checks down, and some people don't bother to do it because the amount of check is so small," Brackett said. "The energy isn't worth what they'll ultimately get at the end of the day."

Legislators identified that as a problem and allowed solicitors to operate these units, Brackett said.

"A lot of people have had a bad check," County Councilman Rick Lee said at the recent meeting. "A lot of small business owners have experienced this."

A check returned from the bank shouldn't be brought to the solicitor's office until after a two-to-three week grace period.

"Good people can accidentally bounce a check," Brackett said. "This gives them the opportunity to make good on the check with the merchant, which is my preferred way."

After a reasonable period of time has passed without restitution being made, then the solicitor's office steps in.

"We send them a letter to come to us and pay the check so an arrest warrant isn't issued," Brackett said.

When the person still doesn't pay the original amount plus fines and fees, Brackett said they'll be prosecuted.

The amount of the check and prior offenses could make the charge felony-level, he said. Fines associated with the bad check are proportionate to how much the check was worth.

"We see a lot of small things, writing a check for pizza or laundry, that end up costing them a fortune," said Glenn of the 7th Circuit solicitor's office. "A merchant used to have to spend a lot of time in court or use a recovery service that charges fees. It turns out to be one of the best things we've done here."