Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2004 / 19 Kislev, 5765

Jeff Gelles
Consumer Watch

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Consumer Reports

Taken for a ride over an old ticket

By Jeff Gelles | (KRT) In all the annals of old tickets' coming back to haunt you, Betty Baumann's story must qualify as one of the strangest.

This summer, the Powelton, Penn. woman got a dunning notice from a Harrisburg collection agency for two tickets issued by the Philadelphia Parking Authority - in January 1992.

Pay $111 to settle them, National Recovery Agency told her, or risk the consequences, including more letters and calls and harm to her credit.

Baumann, a lawful sort with a clean credit record, called National Recovery back. She was tempted to pay simply to avoid more hassles. At one point during the conversation, she pulled out her checkbook and started to fill out a check.

But she hesitated, for two reasons.

One was that in January 1992, when the tickets were issued, Baumann and her husband, Bill, no longer owned the Ford van supposedly tagged for parking at an expired meter one day and in a loading zone four days later. They'd sold it a year earlier to a friend in New York state.

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The other reason was even more basic: In January 1991, the Baumanns had done more than just sell their van. They'd also rented out their house and moved to Africa for four years, to serve as Mennonite missionaries.

When those tickets were issued, in other words, they were more than 7,000 miles away.

Dipping into her account

Baumann says she explained all this to the representative of National Recovery Agency, and even offered to contact the friend who'd bought the van, but the bill collector seemed unmoved.

As it turns out, the collector may have had good reason not to care. Though Baumann didn't know it, by the end of the call, all her arguments were moot.

Baumann is not the most technologically savvy person in the world. "I don't have a cell phone. I don't have a VCR. I don't have an ATM card," she says.

That's probably why her antennae didn't perk up when the collector asked a question about the check she momentarily planned to send: What were the numbers printed along the bottom?

I can't tell you National Recovery's side of this story, since nobody from the company returned my calls, so you'll have to take Baumann's word about what happened next - and that she in no way assented to it.

Baumann says that at the time, she had no idea that National Recovery, armed with those numbers, could dip directly into her account and debit the money it believed it was owed.

But that's what happened, as she discovered when she read her next bank statement.

In August, Baumann wrote National Recovery accusing it of taking her money without authorization, and demanding a full refund.

So far, she hasn't heard back.

Feeling 'bamboozled'

Baumann wanted to tell her story publicly, to spare others a similar fate. "I just think they bamboozled me, and I don't want them to do this to anyone else," she says.

A few other lessons from Baumann's strange story:

If an unauthorized electronic debit of any sort is made from your account, complain immediately to your bank. Watch your statements - outright fraud of this type is on the rise.

If you sell a car and don't need your license plates anymore, make sure they're destroyed. Stolen plates may explain Baumann's mystery tickets.

If you get dunned for genuine old tickets, pay them. Unlike old debts, they don't expire, though state and federal laws may protect you from overly aggressive collection tactics.

Jeff Gelles writes the ConsumerWatch column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2004, Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services