• What's being done to stop debt collectors using questionable tactics?

    By: KIRO 7 STAFF

    Updated:

    WASHINGTON - KIRO 7 Investigates a Washington debt collection company that has the power to take away your driving rights.

    AllianceOne collects debt for more than 80 state and municipal agencies.  A newly-filed lawsuit claims the way the Gig Harbor-based company threatens to collect cash is illegal, possibly giving consumers a way to fight back.

    Margaret Dibb is the plaintiff in the complaint, filed by the Northwest Consumer Law Center in Seattle.  

    When KIRO 7 visited Dibb at her home recently, she would only give a tour of Vashon Island from the passenger's seat.  The 62-year old didn't want KIRO 7 to shoot video of her behind the wheel, because she's been driving illegally for more than a yearand claims she can't get around the rural island any other way.

    “So, you’re always looking over your shoulder when driving?” asked Amy Clancy.

    "Correct,” said Dibb.

    When Dibb paid for Washington license plates and tabs after a move from Oregon in 2012, her check bounced. The Washington state Department of Licensing sent Dibb a letter notifying her the check hadn't cleared, but Dibb -- who shares a mailbox -- claimed she never got the letter, and that she didn't even know about the overdraft until a year later when she went to the licensing office on Vashon to renew.  

    By that time, the outstanding debt had been sent to a collection agency called AllianceOne. Dibb told KIRO once she learned about the overdraft, she immediately paid the nearly $100 to settle the dishonored check and the interest, but disputed the more than $100 in AllianceOne fees, because she claims she was never notified that the check had bounced.  

    As a result, her license tabs have expired, and she's unable to get them renewed.

    “AllianceOne has put a hold on my account with the State of Washington that says I’m in arrears,” Dibb said.  “I cannot legally drive in the state of Washington.”

    KIRO 7 has found that Dibb isn't alone. Hundreds of complaints against AllianceOne have been filed with the Washington State Attorney General's Office, many of them by consumers whose driving privileges have also been suspended and wages garnished, even though they claim to have paid their tickets and fees.

    Many, like Dib, claim they never received notice from AllianceOne otherwise.

    Seattle lawyer Katy Box, with the Northwest Consumer Law Center, has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Dibb that may someday represent all drivers in Washington state who's debts have been, in her words, "unfairly" collected by AllianceOne.

    The Gig Harbor-based collections company filed a civil suit to collect from Dib, which is perfectly legal. However, a letter AllianceOne sent to Dib also threatens possible “criminal charges.”  

    According to Box, that claim violates federal law.  

    “They’re just consistently violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by threatening people with criminal prosecution for bouncing checks,” Box told KIRO 7.  “I mean, everyone’s bounced a check.”

    Box believes thousands of consumers statewide have also received the same letter threatening criminal action but didn't know it may violate federal regulations.  While she waits for more clients to possibly join the class-action suit, Dibb continues to drive around Vashon Island illegally, under the radar.  

    “I think it can and should be resolved,” she told Clancy.  “And I think I’m going to come out the other side glad that I didn’t give-in.”

    AllianceOne’s spokesman, Mark Pfeiffer, didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment. 
     
    Meanwhile, Christine Anthony, of Washington state’s Department of Licensing told KIRO 7, if consumers find themselves in Dibb's position, they need to fight the charges with the court that issued the ticket, as soon as possible, before collection fees accrue.

    If you are having issues with a collections agency, know your rights here.

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