COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. - A couple called WINK News and the Sheriff's office after they got a letter saying they owed money from a nearly 14-year-old debt! Thinking it was a scam, they wanted others to be warned. Through our digging though, we found out it was legit and if you're not careful, you could wind up in a similar situation.
When Bill and Tracey Pickrell contacted us, we started looking into a debt collections notice for $1,100 as a possible scam.
"My first thought was, 'Oh my goodness, I'm going to have to get a second job,' " said Tracey.
She and her husband weren't sure what to think about a letter they received threatening wage garnishment, a suspended license and even jail. It stemmed from an outstanding debt tied to a nearly 14-year-old criminal case.
"That was scary because are they going to knock on my door and take my husband away? Really?" she said.
After checking online and seeing all the complaints about letters like the one they received, the couple called to report it as a possible scam; but a few days later, news from the Sheriff's office surprised them.
"...said that I needed to look into this further because my husband actually did owe some money," Tracey told us.
So she took an entire day to call around to try and figure out where this debt came from.
"Actually everybody we talked to suggested we hire an attorney and we don't even have the money for that! So it was kind of just a vortex of confusion, and grey areas," she said.
Bill got in trouble with the law in Pinellas County back in 1999 and 2000 for a drug charge and violation of probation. According to Bill, a judge gave him the option of staying on probation and paying some big fines or staying in prison for a year and he wouldn't have to pay back any money.
"in other words, when I walked out of prison, I was free and clear of everything," he told us.
When he got out of prison, he says he did everything right.
"No one came at me with a bill because I didn't owe a bill," he explained.
On the Pinellas County Clerk of Court's website we saw that the judge did waive supervision costs in Bill's case, but apparently he was still responsible for "court costs." Both cases were handed over to a collection agency in 2006 and 2007 respectively. But that still didn't explain why Bill was hearing about it, now!
"I just couldn't understand why this would come up after 14 years," Bill said.
"That's one of the newest trends we're seeing," said lawyer Carmen Dellutri of the Dellutri Law Group. He's not surprised to see collections letters like the one the Pickrell's got.
"In my opinion the courts are trying to collect any type of money that they can, because they're running budget shortfalls and the state of Florida just doesn't have the money to give it out to them anymore," he explained.
But going after a debt a decade later, isn't the norm.
"I'll be honest with you, it's a little bizarre to wait 13 years to try to collect on it," he said.
We started digging and the Pinellas County Clerk of Court's office got back to us.
They say once a judge imposes fines and costs, it's listed as a lien. Normally the collections process starts ten years after a lien is placed, but in this case, it was referred to collections after just 7 years. The error was caught and the collections process stopped. But that doesn't mean the debt has gone away. Bill still has to pay back the court costs, but Pinellas County has extended the time he has to pay it back until 2019. Then it goes back to collections.
But for the Pickrell's, they're still wondering why this took so long, to come to light.
"Everybody has a past and uh, why now? You know? We already know that he did his time. He paid the price so let's just move on," said Tracey.
Pinellas County added on an extra commission charge when Bill's lien was sent to collections. Since that process has stopped, county officials are telling us Bill only owes about $830.
A spokesman with the collections law firm says this kind of mistake, like when the court hands over a case to collections too soon, is rare.