Photo: Harold Groven via Flikr
It’s not every day you receive a collections notice from the public library, but that’s exactly what happened to Krissy Pomerantz* six months ago when a barrage of emails insisted she pay $200 for 12 unreturned DVDs.”Whoever rented those DVDs had pretty good taste,” she said. “I think they checked out a series of Dexter, but I sure as hell knew it wasn’t me who made those transactions.”
Pomerantz, who was gearing up for the New York bar while finishing her last year of law school, had no time for the slasher drama, much less a recreational trip to her local library.
She recalled months ago that she’d cut up her library-issued key card and tossed it in the trash, not thinking anything of it. Now she realised someone might have fished the card out of the trash, taped it together, then used it to check out the items, and perhaps even sell them at a street market in Alphabet City.
But what librarian would accept such a damaged card? And how did it even get scanned? Shouldn’t they have asked for some form of I.D.?
Pomerantz called the circulation desk to explain. The charges were fraudulent and her card had been stolen. Their response: Even if the card was wrongly used, you’re still liable.
The most Pomerantz could do was file a report with the police, send a copy and wait for the circulation desk to issue its verdict.
A copy of a police report takes three to four weeks to process in New York City. Pomerantz had requested hers be sent to the circulation desk, but by the time she called to follow up on the document a month later, the circulation desk was saying they lost it. Now she would need to send a written letter and a copy of the report, they said. This would take her a whole other month.
Around this time, Pomerantz began receiving notices in the mail from Unique Collections threatening to send her debt to a national collections agency. The thought of a past-due DVD fine going to collections was bizarre enough, but even more suspicious was that the notice contained the same mailing address and phone as the library’s circulation desk. It remains unclear whether this practice is legal, but Pomerantz was sceptical all the same.
“I was about to leave for a really big trip and was seriously afraid this would affect my credit,” Pomerantz said. What’s more, Pomerantz was concerned that this debt would reflect poorly on her application to the New York Bar. All attorneys, she said, must confess their outstanding debts.
“I knew it could hold my application up,” she said. “And I also knew it wouldn’t have made me looked very responsible to employers.”
So now there she was, back at the police station, filing for yet another copy of her crime report. Pomerantz got a copy of the confirmation, which said the library could call the police station to speak with an officer who would verify what happened, according to her report.
But that wasn’t good enough for the circulation desk. Pomerantz received yet another email—with pasted text from the library’s site—explaining that “if you lose your library card, you’re responsible for all charges.”
“It felt like this very stubborn wall, the kind of thing where instead of trying to work with you, they just want to frustrate you so you just pay the charges,” Pomerantz said.
Again, Pomerantz obeyed the circulation’s desk’s orders and resent her scanned confirmation along with an email pleading for them to resolve the issue.
“We cannot accept this confirmation,” read the reply, “due to a suspicious scratch on the document.”
“Basically, they just accused me of falsifying the report,” said Pomerantz, who vowed to track down someone higher up who might be able to help her. “They’d made me jump through all these hoops, and even then they still wanted their money. I can’t imagine how powerless, frustrated and manipulated someone must feel by this, especially someone unfamiliar with bureaucracy.”
In an ironic twist, Pomerantz took a day to visit the library and research the contacts for people in charge.
PR was no help, and she couldn’t just call to speak to an attorney. But Pomerantz was determined. She got on the phone with as many people as she could.
“Eventually, I called the counsel’s office and got a hold of the administrative assistant to the head, who was very helpful and put me in touch with the head of the library,” she said.
Pomerantz forwarded him all her information, from the unhelpful back and forth with the circulation desk to the suspicious collections notice and her scanned police report confirmation.
The situation was quickly resolved, and Pomerantz learned her lesson—never, ever toss out your library card without shredding and cancelling it first.
“Nobody expects your library card to have this kind of impact on your finances,” she said. “So many people must not know that it can affect your credit.”
All this could easily be solved if the library simply asked to see a form of I.D. when checking out cards, Pomerantz added.
To avoid a similar ordeal, Pomerantz shares this helpful advice:
1. If your library card is cancelled, report it stolen. Also cancel it immediately.
2. Treat it just like a credit card. “Cut it up, throw it out in multiple trash cans, do the whole deal,” said Pomerantz. “It has the same liability as a credit card, so you should know how it works and get all the terms and conditions in writing.”
3. Keep a paper trail. Pomerantz had a far easier time convincing the head of the library to wipe off her charges when she had the evidence to back up her case. “As hard as it is, just keep putting in the effort and keep records of the effort that you’re putting in,” she said.
4. Fight for your rights. “If you know something is systematically unfair, don’t give in. Make sure it’s clear you’re not being difficult or negligent, but that you’re working towards a solution and people [in this case, the circulation desk] aren’t working for you,” Pomerantz said.
5. Don’t be afraid to go higher up. No matter what the circulation desk says, realise they aren’t your last resort. “Do the research to figure out who’s who in the system,” said Pomerantz.
*Name changed at subject’s request.