Your credit may take a hit from unpaid traffic and parking tickets


Your credit may take a hit from unpaid traffic and parking tickets

WAPO, By Ashley Halsey III, Published: October 31

Could the District use an additional $355 million? Would another $680 million help out cash-strapped New York City? How about $58 million more for Milwaukee, or $30 million for Detroit?

Those cities would reap millions if they could collect on unpaid traffic and parking tickets, according to information compiled by AAA. But in an era when speed cameras, red light cameras and high-tech parking meters have created multimillion-dollar municipal revenue streams, record numbers of tickets are going unpaid.

Now your credit score might take the hit if you’re one of the millions of scofflaws who thought you could shred that ticket summons with impunity.

Chevy Chase Village, whose speed cameras have generated thousands of tickets, is among the local jurisdictions that are turning over unpaid tickets to collection agencies. If those debt collectors get the stiff arm from motorists, the credit score that people rely on to get mortgages and car loans gets dinged.

“They can have a serious impact on your credit,” said Barry Paperno, spokesman for the credit service company Fair Isaac Corp., commonly called FICO.

It doesn’t equate to a foreclosure or a bankruptcy, he said, but when an unpaid ticket is reported to a credit bureau by a frustrated collection service, the consumer pays the price.

“Someone with a 680 score could lose roughly 50 points from the addition of a collection of this nature,” Paperno said. “For someone with a 780 score — very, very good credit — the appearance of one of these collections could lower their score by as much as 105 to 125 points.”

Credit scores go from a low of 300 to a high of 850, with the range between 650 and 750 considered about average.

Paperno said it’s unclear how many cities turn to collection agencies.

“Some municipalities routinely do this, whether it’s parking tickets, traffic tickets or, in some cases, even library fines,” he said. “We don’t keep records on the extent to which this is done.”

Few large jurisdictions use collection agencies, but in tight times that may change.

The advent of automatic cameras to capture red-light runners and speeders and the use of metering systems for parking have turned tickets into a cash cow for municipal treasuries.

For example, in fiscal 2010 the District mailed out $43 million in tickets for speed camera violations and $7.8 million for red- light runners caught on camera. The total in the first seven months of fiscal 2011 — $36.7 million — suggested those numbers would be surpassed by the time the year ended Sept. 30.

The District is offering drivers with delinquent tickets a chance to pay up through Jan. 27 and warns that unpaid tickets may be turned over to a collection agency. In July, officials announced that more than 4 million tickets worth $245.7 million were eligible for the program.

Neither Montgomery nor Prince George’s counties turn unpaid ticket collection over to a collection agency, but across the Potomac, Alexandria does.

“When you look across the country and see the number of people who are thumbing their noses at unpaid parking tickets, you realize one reason why cities are in financial trouble,” said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA. “As much as we don’t like tickets, this is a real problem for cities.”

He said many drivers may ignore tickets generated by the automated cameras because, unlike when a ticket is issued by an officer, there’s no way of knowing who is behind the wheel. That means the vehicle’s owner generally won’t have a problem when he or she renews a driver’s license.

Many drivers who are passing through a place they don’t expect to revisit anytime soon disregard parking or traffic tickets.

“Now you have states taking a more aggressive stance,” Townsend said.

Chevy Chase Village chose that kind of stance in January when the number of people who hadn’t paid tickets after being caught by its Connecticut Avenue speed cameras exceeded 30,000 and uncollected fines mounted to more than $1 million, said Village Manager Shana Davis-Cook.

Some private companies that provide radar enforcement offer collection services. For example, ACS State & Local Solutions, which contracts with Chevy Chase Village, also does business as LDC Collection Systems.

Violators receive at least three warning letters before the collection agency reports the delinquency to one of the major credit score bureaus, Davis-Cook said. Collection efforts have yielded a return of about 20 percent of fines pursued, but officials hope the number will rise to 30 percent.

“Many of these were repeat offenders,” Davis-Cook said. “People who are repeatedly ignoring the posted speed limit and then not paying their fines. It’s certainly not fair to those drivers who receive a citation and then do promptly have it paid.”