Bamboozled: Collection confusion

Jacqueline Halsey admits she hasn’t always been responsible with money.

The Elizabeth woman overextended herself after financially helping some family members, and she fell behind on some payments, including on a Capitol One credit card.

In mid-November 2011, Halsey received a letter from a Eichenbaum & Stylianou, a law firm that acts as a debt collector.

There was a judgment against her for nonpayment of the credit card. The debt totaled $1,286.55, including interest and court fees. When Halsey called Eichenbaum to get more information, a rep asked if she wanted to pay off the debt, Halsey said.

“I said no, that I didn’t have (the money) at this time. I asked if I could do a payment arrangement of $100 per month but I was told it would have to be more,” said Halsey, 54. “I was told they would have to take steps to get this paid off. I told them to do what they have to do since my amount was not acceptable.”

And it did. A lien was placed against Halsey’s bank account in January 2012. In the meantime, Halsey had started sending monthly $100 money order payments to the court.

That apparently wasn’t enough. In March, Halsey’s paycheck was garnished $169.03, an amount that would be taken out every two weeks until the debt was satisfied.

But the recording of the debt was confusing. On each pay stub, it would indicate the amount being garnished and the remaining balance of the debt. But it didn’t add up, she said. The monthly $100 Halsey had started paying to the court was not reflected in the remaining balance.

Halsey said she called Eichenbaum & Stylianou several times in March, asking for an explanation. Halsey said she explained to a rep that the math was wrong when you added together the garnishments and the $100 monthly payments.

But it didn’t help.

Halsey said the rep told her it had no record of the garnishments or of the money orders Halsey paid to the court, nor was an account statement offered.
“(The rep) asked again if I wanted to pay off the balance,” she said. “I told her that her company was already being paid twice and that all I wanted at this point was a statement from Eichenbaum & Stylianou showing payments made and the balance due.”

Halsey said she also reached out to the court, which told her to talk to Eichenbaum.
The weeks went by and the garnishments continued, but the balance shown on Halsey’s pay stubs remained incorrect.

By the beginning of May, it was obvious to Halsey that the court and Eichenbaum still weren’t in sync. Halsey had paid $400 via money orders and $845 through garnishment for a total of $1,245, just $41 less than the total amount owed. But her pay stub showed she still owed $457.

“I’m happy to pay it, but I don’t want to overpay,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s fair, and I bet I’m not the only one.”

We reviewed the court documents, pay stubs and letters Halsey received from the court and from Eichenbaum.

Then we called the debt collector.

We reached the rep Halsey talked to, and the rep said the company couldn’t discuss the debt because it’s being sold to a different company. It would be transferred sometime in the next few weeks, the rep said.
We asked if a current account statement could be accessed so Halsey could compare what she’s paid and what the firm has received.

Nope. The rep said Halsey’s file couldn’t be accessed was because the debt is moving to another company.

Has it moved yet?


So it would seem this company is collecting money on a debt but its employees can’t see how much it has collected to date.

We asked for a supervisor.

They’ll say the same thing, the rep said, suggesting we call Capitol One.
Before that, we reached out to the court officer who had been accepting the $100 money orders. That’s where we met a very helpful employee who gave us a great lesson on the process. From that, we were able to piece together what’s been going wrong.

It turns out that two different court offices have been collecting Halsey’s payments: one has received the money orders while the other is in charge of the garnishments. Two payments from two different sources is known as a dual execution.

Both of these courts separately report their collections to the debt collector – Eichenbaum – and the two courts don’t have the responsibility of adding up all the payments. That’s up to Eichenbaum.

It’s also up to Eichenbaum to tell Halsey what she may still owe, and to stop the garnishments once the balance is satisfied, the court rep said.

The court employee took it a step further and reviewed Halsey’s case, also contacting the court in charge of the garnishments. While it couldn’t give specifics, after our conversations, we’ve concluded Halsey’s math is right on.

“She should not remit any additional payment to our office,” the court employee said, noting that the garnishing court now knows of the money order payments made by Halsey. “If there’s an overpayment, the court officer (handling the garnishments) will have to arrange for a refund.”

That refund would go back to Halsey’s employer, who would then put the funds in an upcoming paycheck.

That’s all good news, but still, we think Halsey deserves from Eichenbaum an accounting of her payments.

We asked the Federal Trade Commission to clarify exactly what debt collectors are responsible for when it comes to answering a request for an account balance such as Halsey’s.

Surprisingly, under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, there are no regulations specific to a debt collector’s responsibility to update a debtor’s balance. Instead, it’s left to state law.

But in New Jersey, this kind of thing isn’t covered. The “New Jersey Fair Debt Collection Practices Act” is in committee in the Assembly, and there’s a similar version in the Senate, but neither calls for debt collectors to provide account statements after the collection process has begun.

Maybe it should.

Legislation or no legislation, it doesn’t seem that Halsey’s request is an unreasonable one. We turned to Capitol One, the company that hired Eichenbaum in the first place. We wanted to know if it had a handle on the payments already made for Halsey, and because it appears she has already overpaid, we wanted to know if it could take steps to stop further garnishments.

Capitol One said it would look at the case, but it didn’t have any answers for us before publication.

Halsey hopes that it’s fixed, and fast.

“I do not have monies to keep paying towards a debt that should be paid in full,” she said.

We’ll let you know what happens.