When a collection agency attempted to defraud West Hurley resident Laurie Perkins of the thousands of dollars she had spent to repay a credit card debt, the Ulster County Consumer Fraud Bureau came to the rescue. Perkins and other people who have benefited from the services of the agency are upset that it is being cut from next year’s budget as the county strives to stay within the new tax cap that prohibits a budget increase of over two percent.
“Frauds are hurting those who are hurting to begin with — retirees, veterans, disabled people, unemployed people,” said Ray Vaughn of Marbletown, himself a disabled vet. “They get their hopes built up by these scams that imply money is coming to them to help them when they’re really desperate. The fraud bureau has helped me when I’ve received scams indicating ‘you are the recipient of so much money, you have been awarded a prize of considerable value.’ Until you notify the fraud bureau, you will continue to get letters from these scams.”
The bureau will close as of December 30. Bob Sudlow, Deputy County Executive, said fraud investigation services will be taken over by the New York State Attorney General’s office in Poughkeepsie, which will triage complaints. The staff there includes consumer advocates, who will handle such issues as a business that fails to follow up on a warranty. “If it turns out to be a criminal matter,” Sudlow explained, “like if you had a builder who took a deposit and never performed the work, that’s a theft. It would be referred back to the Ulster County District Attorney’s office. A large-scale scam, like computer fraud, would be referred to the Attorney General’s office in Albany.”
Will the new system work? “We’re hopeful,” said Sudlow. “Certainly nothing is a guarantee until we get a track record and see what the satisfaction has been. We’ll be revisiting it on a quarterly basis, meeting with the state to review what the mutual benefit is to both groups. They are already empowered to provide the service, and we’ve asked them to uphold what they’re required to do by statute. Many counties do not have a consumer fraud bureau.”
Vaughn is skeptical about the efficacy of the state office. “I’ve dealt with the State Attorney General’s office, but they have thousands of claims. You might not be considered for several years. State agencies are not responsive in many matters, compared to the county bureau.”
Sudlow, however, said many of the bureau’s services are no longer needed, thanks to the increase in consumer awareness since it was established, about 30 years ago.
‘A big loss’
Mae Stark of Eddyville was involved in that early consumer initiative. “It started with one person and several volunteers,” she recalls. “I was one of those volunteers, in a little office in the county courthouse building. They got to be so involved with so many problems that people brought to them, it developed into an actual bureau with a director.”
Over the years, Stark has had occasion to ask for their services. “With the Internet going on, I’ve called three times in the last two months. Someone was actually digging for my password. They pretended something else, but that was what they wanted. Someone said I had ordered electronic equipment for $179, and I had to pay through Paypal.” She printed out the email and brought a copy to the bureau. They contacted the sender, “and the whole thing was withdrawn. They sent me letter telling me what they had done — within two days.”
Stark feels that closing the bureau will be disastrous. “Their services are so important. And it’s free. Poughkeepsie is in another county, across the river, and it’s not convenient. They operate with three people, no fancy furniture. The cost is a drop in the bucket — that’s not going to balance the budget.”
Perkins had a serious problem, involving a credit card debt of several thousand dollars that had been sold to a collection agency. She was a single mother of two, just starting her own professional organizing business. She arranged to pay the collection agency $100 a month, which they would withdraw directly from her bank account. “Over a period of time, I paid off almost the entire thing,” she remembers. “I was down to $700. Then I got a letter in the mail saying I had somehow reneged or messed up my payment plan. That was ridiculous — even if there’s no food, I pay that. They said they’d bounced the account back to the bank, and now I owe $7000. I was so stressed I couldn’t breathe.”
She couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer and was working seven days a week. Eventually she went to the Consumer Fraud Bureau, where Patrick Long immediately began writing letters and sending her copies. He discovered the collection agency had an “F” rating and was apparently operating a scam. “It took a couple of months of his advocating for me, and we won the case,” said Perkins. “I didn’t have to go to court. I didn’t have to pay the $7000. I only owed the $700 that was left, and the bank even waived that and sent me an apology.”
The efforts of the bureau were fundamental to her ability to stay in business. “Words can’t describe how grateful I was,” she said. “This will be a big loss for Ulster County.”
Sudlow said the decision to cut the bureau was not made lightly. “It was unique 30 years ago, when consumers were first noticing inequalities and unfairness and scams. We were on the cutting edge. But the county gets left with a number of mandates and restrictions, and we have to make hard decisions. Do we want to have funding for domestic violence or substance abuse, consumer fraud or child advocacy? It got down to those kinds of decisions. We had to look for places where other people could pick up the work and stay with the core mission.”++
The Ulster County Consumer Fraud Bureau can be reached at 340-3260. After December 30, the same number will lead callers to the New York State Attorney General’s office in Poughkeepsie.