4,800 traffic camera tickets with credit warning issued by 'mistake'

Iowa Attorney General's Office 'has concerns' with language

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Tactics used to collect on Cedar Rapids traffic camera tickets are again coming into question.

A change to the language on traffic camera tickets appearing to threaten credit downgrades for non-payment — which would run afoul of the law and guidance from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office — was done in error, a Cedar Rapids official said.

“Once discovered, the mistake was corrected,” Cedar Rapids spokeswoman Maria Johnson said Thursday.

She said 4,800 letters went out Sept. 29 with incorrect language due to a staff error, and no other letters were or are to be sent out with the incorrect language.

It’s not clear how the change happened or whether it was made by staff at the city or at traffic camera vendor GATSO USA, which splits the proceeds with the city.

Greg Winchester, of Jacksonville, Ill., raised a question about the ticket he received Thursday for a Sept. 29 violation. His ticket read: “Amounts that remain outstanding after the due date listed above (Oct. 29, 2016) will be turned over to the City’s collection agency which may lead to an adjustment of your credit rating.”

“Evidently, the threats to credit ratings have continued after they claimed they stopped,” Winchester wrote in an email to The Gazette.

After reporting from The Gazette last year, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office advised city officials in September 2015 that non-payment for traffic camera tickets couldn’t be used as a black mark on credit scores. This was due to a settlement earlier in the year between 31 state attorneys general, including Iowa’s Tom Miller, and the three major credit reporting agencies.

Credit threats would violate the law, which forbids “fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading representation or means to collect or attempt to collect a debt,” state officials said at the time.

Afterward, references to credit scores were removed from tickets. But The Gazette and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office received copies of payment notices sent to motorists suggesting the threat had returned.

Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, said Thursday his office “has concerns” with the language. The Consumer Protection Division contacted Cedar Rapids officials to learn more, he said.

“In September of last year, our office conveyed this (settlement agreement) to staff at the City of Cedar Rapids by telephone, and today our position remains unchanged,” Greenwood said. “While the agreement does not prohibit an entity from forwarding unpaid debt information to a (credit reporting agency), a CRA is prohibited from reporting such debt on a credit report.”

Before September 2015, dings on credit scores and legal action were the primary consequences for not paying tickets. Cedar Rapids officials acknowledged legal action is not practical given the small value of most tickets — $75.

Rashad Dixon, 19, who is from Marion and attends Iowa State University, said he received a ticket in March sent to his Marion address, but didn’t know about it until months later when he heard from Harris & Harris LTD, a debt collector for the city.

He began researching the matter and discovered the credit rating threats aren’t allowed, so he called the company.

“The first three people I spoke with from Harris & Harris said it would go against my credit rating if I don’t pay in 45 days,” he said. “Finally, it got elevated and the person said it is not going to go against your credit, but I am not sure if it was just because he had to when I brought up The Gazette article.”

Harris & Harris officials could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Traffic camera programs have come under fire in Cedar Rapids perhaps as much as anywhere in the nation. Locations on Interstate 380, said to be the only such permanent camera installations on interstates in the country, result in more than 100,000 tickets a year, generating more than $5 million annually.

There are pending class-action lawsuits from motorists, and the city is suing to block an order from the Iowa Department of Transportation to move or take down some cameras.

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