Public Library Goon Squad

August 1, 2006

It’s been a long time since I got an overdue notice from the library. That’s because it’s years since I’ve been to a public library. The folks at Barnes and Noble are much nicer, and the bathrooms are cleaner too. So imagine my surprise when a letter arrived from the Queens Borough Public Library announcing they had referred my $57 overdue debt to a collections agency!

It was a pretty scary note: “Notice of non-payment may be made available to credit grantors including car dealers, finance companies, banks, department stores and others … This adverse information can stay on your record for up to seven years! Why allow this to happen?”

Why indeed? I rolled my eyes at the strong-arm tactics, but a debt is a debt, even if its ten years old. The next day I gave the library a ring. That’s when things got weird. According to the nice lady at the circulation desk, I checked out the book in April, 2006. “But I haven’t been to your library in a decade,” I told her. “I don’t even live in Queens anymore!” I asked her the title. It turned out to be a children’s book, written in Spanish: El Hombre Que Aprendio a Ladrar Y Otros Cuentos. I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m guessing that translates as The Man Who Got Screwed Over by the Library.

A few more phones calls lead me to Hong, in the community relations department. When I explained my situation, she went on the attack: “You have to tell us when you move, so we can delete your account!” Oops. With all the fuss over renting a new place and hiring movers and packing my belongings ten years ago, I apparently forgot the most important part of any move: calling the library. Hong went on to suggest that it was up to me to clear my name. “You need proof. Show us documents,” she said.

Next I tried the collections agency, Unique Management Services. This fine Jefferson, Indiana company works exclusively with public libraries, it turns out, breaking the kneecaps of past-due scofflaws on behalf of more than 300 lending operations across the country. According to this article in USAToday, it collected more than $7 million for the Queens Library in 2004.

I got a pretty good idea why the revenue is flowing in after explaining my situation to Karen, the Unique manager on my account: “I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said sweetly. “But we are only doing what the library asks.” I faxed over my drivers license to prove I don’t even live in Queens, but didn’t hear back. It’s a pretty good racket: contact the library patrons, tell them you’ll ruin their credit if they don’t pay up, and assume they’re guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

My only consolation is that both the library and the collection agency might be full of it. When I called credit scoring company Fair Isaac to find out if the library could really ruin my credit, the rep burst out laughing and chided me for falling prey to what he referred to as the library Nazis. “That’s a crazy ridiculous thing,” he said. “I have yet to a derogatory mark from any credit union pertaining to the library.”

Hope he’s right!

38 Responses to “Public Library Goon Squad”

  1. Per Says:

    Next they’ll be sending out the librarians door to door to inspect homes for overdue books.

  2. Supermike Says:

    I once went to a college where the library records department would screw up the records because they hired college kids to manage it all for low wages while the well-paid state sloths sat on their butts all day. More often than not I would have “blocks” placed on my ability to register for classes the next semester because they claimed I had checked out a book and not returned it, when I clearly had. They made me wait in line to get through registration, but then my place went from 10th to 1st to 150th again because I had to lose my place and hit the library, where again, there was another line. I recall two times having to go back to the shelves and prove a book was returned before getting a chance to register for a class. By the time I got over this mess, I would have lost the opportunity to get the better teachers and be left with the losers that couldn’t teach.

    When I told my parents about this, they said, “Welcome to the real world.”

  3. Chris Says:

    No – collections action for unpaid library fines will hit your credit report as quickly as collections for unpaid parking tickets, or overdue bills. Do yourself a favor and take care of this mess right away.

  4. Jaffar Says:

    Not funny, but there is a Seinfeld episode on this! :)

  5. Mark Says:

    How do you suggest he does that, Chris?

  6. Andy Says:

    That Seinfeld episode was classic. Wasn’t the library cops name “Bookman”. Great post!


  7. Bookman was his name! I thought of the same thing, but it seems you’ve all beat me to it! haha

  8. Neal Says:

    Chris is right — collections actions are collections actions, and /will/ hurt your credit. Even if you pay it off, it’ll STILL hurt your credit, because there’s still a collections action on your credit report.

    The statute of limitations may have expired on the debt. It appears that it’s six years in NY.

    If that doesn’t work, start by forcing the collections agency to validate your debt. The Credit Infocenter has a good article on how to do this.

  9. erehwon Says:

    If in doubt about how accurate your library is at recording that you have checked in a book, always get a receipt.
    I fought for months with a large University library over a book a returned but which was improperly checked in. They claimed I owed a fine, and messed up my ability to register.
    After that, I always got a receipt for the books I returned.
    Pissed them off, but I stuck to my guns and got it.

  10. Jordan Mitchell Says:

    Well, I’m glad you were able to keep a cool head, or atleast it seems that way haha. I don’t think I would have. Great post though.

  11. bloglily Says:

    I love my local public library, and use it all the time. Where I live the bathroom problem is the other way around: Barnes & Noble has an icky bathroom, and finally they had to close it. My local library’s bathroom is pristine, maybe because the reference desk is right near the door to the bathroom. And there are a lot of dodgy people in the library. Something about the reference librarian must keep people in line. Anyway, the collections action you describe is outrageous! I can’t believe the woman at that library didn’t just take care of things for you. Most people who work in libraries are much nicer than that. Is it Queens do you think or libraries? Anyway, good luck getting things straightened up.

  12. MorningGlory Says:

    In my experience, it’s virtually impossible to prove a negative. Prove that he didn’t pay you. Prove that you didn’t check out a book. Prove that anything /didn’t/ happen.

    It would probably be a good thing for you to notify Experian/Equifax/TransUnion and dispute this charge /BEFORE/ it hits your credit report.

    Great story.

  13. littlelai Says:

    As a librarian I am upset by how you are being treated. And yes, this can hurt your credit. The person who laughed at the idea did you a disservice.

    If you have a bill from April 2006 fax it to the library circulation desk AND the human resources person. The fax number should be on their website or call for it.

    Continue calling until they get sick of you. You don’t want to deal with circulation for too long because they are just the people who deal with patrons, they don’t send anything to a collection agency.

    If nothing is fixed within a week of faxing your bill to the library, call the library director and speak to her/him personally.

    Hope this helps

    • Vickie H Says:

      We also use a collections agency — but we do not go back into the old records to collect. You must have at least $25 of fees and/or fines and more than 45 days overdue. By that time you will have receieved three overdue notices from us. Our budgets have been slashed to the point where we are not sure what we are supposed to purchase new materials with. Having to replace materials because patrons think they have the right to keep them as long as they feel like it is not an option.

  14. range Says:

    Hmm, I think I owe 12.58$ to a library. It’s only been a few months, but I’m planning on moving away. I guess I should pay them off before leaving! :)

    I went to the library every Friday. All was going well until I felt “pressured” to read the books that I borrowed in a certain amount of time. I then decided it was safer to buy the books or rent only one at a time.

  15. shocking Says:

    i can’t believe that library collection is going to be that big issue that you summon goons


  16. [...] Public Library Good Squad {via} Marking up a library book Scary Library of Congress class [...]

  17. Drinker Nisti Says:

    Check out PaperbackSwap.com — I haven’t bought a new book or gone to the library all year… The books are yours to do with as you wish.


  18. Talk about strongarm tactics!!

    And how does one prove that they DIDN’T take out a book?

    …. I mean it’s not like the librarian asks for a full retinal scan before allowing a book to be borrowed

  19. Charodon Says:

    Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you should immediately respond *in writing* to the debt collector doing 2 things: 1) contesting the validity of the debt, and 2) requesting proof of the debt. YOU HAVE 30 DAYS from the time you were contacted by the debt collector (although it sounds like you may have contacted them first — I’d still assume 30 days, just to be safe).

    Don’t do anything more over the phone — it must be in writing. And keep a photocopy of all outgoing correspondence if you can.


  20. Let’s establish the point here. Libraries are custodians of the public’s resources. We are responsible for the condition of materials paid for by tax payers. We would be remiss if we are cavalier about materials that are simply not returned. In a word, not returning items is STEALING!” Not returning them on time incurs a fee just like a credit card company does. It must be paid.

    I’m not saying that a mistake wasn’t made in this case. Charadon has the right approach. In all fairness to Unique Management, the debtor is given several notices in advance of turning the debt over to collections. This quote comes directly from their website:

    “We send a letter as soon as we receive a patron’s account, usually the same day.
    We give the patron three weeks to respond and then follow up with a second letter.
    If the patron returns material or makes a partial payment but does not resolve the account in full, we automatically send a letter encouraging the patron to resolve the remaining balance.
    If a patron still owes the library money two weeks after the second letter, we call the patron at home in the evening or on Saturday. Live, friendly voices encourage patrons to contact the library directly. We have found that calls improve results as much as 30 percent over letters alone.”

    We’ve worked with Unique Management for several years now and they have “gently” been able to retrieve materials and money owed to us.

    Anne MAY not be guilty in this case, and she needs to ferret out the problem, but in most cases, instead of blaming the agencies, we should blame the deadbeats who have made the action necessary.

  21. Shorty Says:

    I have to throw my support behind Hoosier Librarian here. This may sound like strong arm tactics, and I feel for Anne in this particular case, but without collection agencies and the threat of losing ones good credit name, Libraries would be allowing millions, in taxpayer money to wash away with people who were simply unwilling to show a small amount of personal responsibility.

    I happen to know of a midwestern library in a large city that, before they signed on with Unique, were owed something like 2 or 3 million dollars in unpaid accounts. That’s a lot taxpayer money to write off simply because it’s inconvient for some people.

  22. Sabrina Says:

    As the director of a small public library, we have never resorted to a collection agency. We make courtesy calls and reminder notices about overdue materials. The patron is given almost a year to make good the issue. If it is not resolved, then library privileges are simply suspended until the patron appears again and takes care of the matter.

    It is hugely unfair to categorize all libraries the same. Our restrooms are clean. Patrons get courteous service. Programs are offered that benefit the community. Everyone is welcome to come in and take advantage of the services that we have to offer.

    This is not to say that there aren’t guidelines. We most certainly have them, otherwise, the library would be in a mess without them. The guidelines set are within state law and we are obligated to implement them.

    I am sorry that Anne had a bad experience with that library. She is probably not at fault. It does sound a bit heavy handed. But as Hoosier Librarian pointed out when we are given the care of the library collection, which is supported by tax payers money. It is considered stealing when the material is not returned. It gets rather discouraging that there are some people who give not a second thought of running off with library books (or CDs, DVDs, audio books, etc) Some people just do not take their responsibilities seriously.

  23. brenda Says:

    I am sorry that things were checked out on an old account of yours and you were not responsible. The first thing that should have happened is speaking to someone in charge and taking care of proving that you don’t live there anymore. Unfortunately, people get charged for things they don’t do on a regular basis EVERYWHERE, not just the library (ever get a charge on your credit card that wasn’t yours? happens all the time, the library is not the only guilty one in this), and it is a hassle to deal with this. I’d vent too.

    I am a librarian and as many bad things that could be said about the library, you could triple that about unruly, rude, late, copyright infringing patrons who never return books or return them in terrible condition. Without a public library that all have access to, there could be no guarantee for all citizens that each person have access to the information that enables us to continue to live in a free society. It is necessary and Barnes and Noble will never be free and for that reason alone, it will never give the access that a library can and will, without respect to income.

    The library is a place of trust, and if someone (not you in this case) borrows and doesn’t return the materials, they should be held responsible.


  24. [...] I checked around and found this weblog post from another person facing the same ‘threat’ from her local library, for what sounds like a book she never even checked out. [...]

  25. Debbie Says:

    I’ve been a librarian for nearly 25 years and winced when I read Anne’s comments. Do libraries make mistakes? Sure and hers may be just that. Usually a chat with senior library staff,backed up by some documentation,would result in a waived fine at most public libraries. The problem is most public libraries are too “nice” and are taken advantage of by people like the fellow who felt “pressured” to return a book on time or the one who felt his $12.45 fine was unimportant. Brenda is right libraries are places of trust. Cardholders have signed and given their word to abide by the libraries rules. It seems the time when a person’s word was his bond are long gone. Many people who take out library books, DVD’s etc. think nothing of never returning the items. After all, it’s only the library,right? Maybe, if people thought about the fact that every time an item is stolen from the public, more tax dollar have to be wasted in replacing the item. It’s either that or library users are frustrated that there are no available copies of the latest Disney DVD (all copies having disappeared out the door never to return). My library is currently owed tens of thousands of dollars for materials never returned (we call this Long Overdue meaning notices were sent and several months have passed since the last notice). What do we do? Currently,
    we just suck it up and send more tax money to replace. Maybe that’s what the vast majority of the public wants. So come on in take what you want and don’t worry about it.

  26. jtories Says:

    Ask any collection agency owner what they fear most and they will tell you a well-educated consumer. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is a great tool to help the educated consumer navigate collection laws but most attorneys don’t even understand the law, so how could anyone expect you to understand the law? If you want the best explanation of the FDCPA as well as the easiest way out of debt go to http://www.beatthecollector.com and stick it to the man!

  27. Lillian Says:

    Unique Management left a scathing negative on my credit report. The library tells me I have a $0 balance and promised to contact Unique Collections, but one year later, the negative rating is still on my credit report. Unique Management never contacted me by phone to bring this to my attention, and I NEVER received any notice of overdue/missing. Once I found out, when I actually walked into the library, I paid for the fine completely.

    It is very sad when a collection agency can do so much damage to your credit report and unfairly, for I was not contacted. I have once again written the library, and I will write the appropriate agencies if necessary, or bring this matter to the media if the bad mark is not removed.

    Lillian


  28. It’s quite unreal how some administrations could not care less about their patrons…..
    I used to go to libraries and get my books regularly, but since I start listening to audiobooks more than actually reading them, I stopped using the library. Seems like a good thing!

  29. WInston Says:

    I am being billed $3.50 for returning a few magazines to the library all of 5 days late back in 1993 and 1995. I think there should be a statute of limitations on the debt. The library would probably want to compound the interest.

    I mean, if the materials were returned should not their be a statute of limitations on such a minor amount.

    It’s heavy handedness like this that causes people to totally lose faith in our institutions and society, especially the so-called “noble” institutions….

  30. Anton Says:

    I recently received one of those “gentle nudge” letters from UMS. A friend of mine was able to obtain a copy of my account profile simply by calling UMS and asking for it. The profile includes fields for DOB and SSN as well as address and phone number. The next day UMS faxed him the entire list of patrons owing fines at my local library. The scary thing is that UMS also goes after child library patrons under 18. So a child’s info can end up in anyone’s hands.

    My library does not inform patrons that register for a card that their private data can be released to a collection agency. There should be some kind of Miranda-type waiver advising a patron how the library will use their information.


  31. Under the FDCPA collectors must not call you if you have attorney representation. They must also not call you before 9 or after 5 during the week. If you send them a cease and disist letter they must not call your work. Don’t let yourself get abused by these people. And never give them any personal information they will just use it against you later to collect money from you. Oh and one more thing it is illegal for a collector to threaten to sue you unless they are indeed actually doing it. Many will just use that as a threat to get you to send them money.

  32. Tim Reynolds Says:

    It is important to understand the laws related to debt collection. Most debt collectors are violating your rights.


  33. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write this post. I found it to be very helpful as I can relate to this very well. I look forward to you writing again. Thanks.

  34. kelly Says:

    I am dealing with the same thing over a 13.00 fine. My biggest problem is that they are sending me these threating letters to collect their money and it yet they are funded by taxpayers. How much more money do they need???


  35. Use the laws that protect you – the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. You can send a Cease & Desist, and that may stop the calls, but it may be at your expense. Most collectors forward accounts to attorneys upon receiving these.

  36. Small Library Librarian Says:

    I’m sorry to hear that your credit score could be dinged, but let’s look at the facts here: You had an old bill of $57.00, not a small amount of money, owed to the library for an item you checked out. You basically stole the book from the public, and when the library came to get you to reimburse the public for the item you took from other taxpayers, you get huffy because you might have to face the consequences of your actions.

    Sorry, but I have no sympathy. My library doesn’t have the money to replace items that people don’t return, not only depriving other people of those items, but essentially ripping off everyone who has paid taxes for the stuff they selfishly took.

    If you stole $57.00 worth of stuff from Target, would you call the police Nazis for arresting you for theft?


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