Herald JournalHerald Journal, Feb. 23, 2004

Winsted, Lester police take new approach to collecting bad checks

By Ryan Gueningsman

If a business or private individual turns in a bad check to the police department, it usually ends up costing the police department, and ultimately the taxpayers, more in attempts to collect the money than the check was originally written for.

Local police departments are looking at participating in a non-profit program called Retailers Protection Association (RPA).

"They will allow cities to join at no cost," said Winsted Police Chief Mike Henrich. Businesses and individuals can also join with no cost to them.

Henrich addressed the Winsted Area Chamber of Commerce at its meeting Thursday. Lester Prairie Police Chief Bob Carlson plans to address the Lester Prairie Business Association at its March meeting.

With approval of this program, the local police departments would no longer be directly dealing with non-sufficient funds (NSF) checks. The bad checks would be sent directly to RPA, and would allow the police departments to spend more time investigating other issues in the communities.

"This program would allow us as a department to spend more time investigating other crimes that have occurred in our communities, and being more proactive in preventing crime," Carlson said.

If a business that becomes a part of the program receives a bad check, the business can turn it over to RPA directly.

From there, RPA will send out a demand notice to the writer of the bad check, and document it in its database. The association's database can be accessed by law enforcement and member businesses for updates on check recovery efforts.

RPA will collect the $30 statute fee that comes from writing a bad check, the amount the check was written for, plus the bank fee.

There is also an $85 diversion fee, which is dropped if the amount of the check is paid within two weeks of reviewing a demand notice.

The bad check writer must also attend a diversion class in lieu of criminal prosecution. This keeps low level cases out of the court system, and brings in only hard core repeat or multiple check offenders, according to information from RPA.

In 2000, the Winsted Police Department had about 80 bad check cases, 60 of which went through the criminal complaint process. Going through that process costs slightly more than $100 each time, Henrich said.

"It costs the taxpayers more money for us to go after these people," Carlson said. "When financial times are hard, it is hard for some people to keep money in their check accounts."

Winsted set a $50 minimum for bad checks before the department would pursue them, and the number dropped, Henrich added. Lester Prairie has a $20 minimum.

Last year, Winsted had about 14 cases. All of those cases, with the exception of one, went to the criminal complaint process.

"It's a losing cost, at least for the police department," Henrich said.

In recent years in Lester Prairie, the department has received an average of 20 bad check cases a year that end up going through the complaint process, Carlson said.

"The governor told cities to find ways to do the same job more efficiently with less money," Carlson said, "and this program is a good way to do that."

The RPA program was brought to the attention of the local departments through information presented at a McLeod County Chiefs Association meeting recently.

How to participate

Businesses and individual citizens can participate in the program at no charge to them. A representative from RPA will meet with business owners in Winsted and Lester Prairie to go over the exact details.

For a first-time program user, RPA will take bad checks up to 24 months old and continue the collection process.

Each police department that participates will sign a three-year, no-fee contract for the service, Henrich said. Each business, in turn, can hand over its bad checks right to RPA. If approved, business owners or individuals can go to the local police department the first time they receive a bad check to obtain a packet of information on what to do and a form to fill out.

The city council in each community must approve this program before it can be utilized by the police departments. Both chiefs plan to ask for their respective councils' approval at the next meetings.

For more information about this program, Henrich said people may contact him at (320) 485-2366. In Lester Prairie, citizens can attend the Lester Prairie Business Association meeting Tuesday, March 9 at Jonio's at noon, or contact Carlson at (320) 395-2100.

More information on the program can also be found online at www.theftreporting.com.

"I don't see a downside to this program," Henrich said.

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