Washington

What to do If Your Check Bounces

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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What is a bounced check?

A "bounced" or dishonored check is a check you write that you cannot pay for, usually because there is not enough money in your bank account to cover the check amount. Writing bad checks is a crime in Washington. (RCW 9A.56.060.) 

State law lays out specific procedures that both you and the party trying to collect on your check must follow when your check bounces.

  • You will see citations (example:  "RCW 9A.56.060") in this publication. Citations tell you the specific law that supports the statement before the citation. Our citations can help you look up the law, at your local law library, or online at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx.
 

What happens when my check bounces?

You give your check to a merchant to pay for something. The merchant sends your check to the bank to collect the money. If there is not enough money in your account to cover the check, the bank will dishonor (not pay) the merchant for your check. When this happens, your check has "bounced."  Your bank will return the check to the merchant.

The bank or a collection agency must then send you a "Notice of Dishonor."  (RCW 62A.3-503.)  It says you still owe the merchant the check's face value. You now also owe a returned check fee.

After your bank sends the Notice of Dishonor, its role collecting on your check is over.  The collection is now between you, the merchant and any collection agency the merchant might use. The law sets out very specific procedures for the merchant and debt collection agencies to follow in trying to collect what you owe.

  • Thirty-three days after the bank/collection agency sends the Notice of Dishonor, it may file a lawsuit against you to collect the debt. Before the thirty-third day, the merchant/collection agency may collect from you no more than the face amount of the check, PLUS a reasonable handling fee, PLUS a 12% annual interest fee built up since the Notice of Dishonor was sent, PLUS the costs of collection of no more than the check's face amount or $40, whichever is less.

  • If you do not settle the matter within the thirty-three-day period, the merchant/ collection agency may file a lawsuit against you. You may be responsible for the above costs, PLUS any court costs, service costs, and court-ordered attorney fees. (RCW 62A.3-515(1).)

  • If the lawsuit goes forward and the court rules that you bounced the check, you may be responsible for all of the above costs and fees PLUS three times the check's face amount or $300, whichever is less. (RCW 62A.3-530(1).)

They sued me. Can I still settle?

Maybe. The law gives you a chance to settle before trial.

If you can offer and pay the check's face amount, plus any court costs, service costs, reasonable handling fees, and the check's face amount OR $40 (whichever is less), the collection agency or merchant must take your payment as full satisfaction of its claim. (RCW 62A.3-515(2).)

This means they would dismiss the case. You would not face the possibility of a judge ordering you to pay all the above costs PLUS three times the check's face amount or $300.

What if the debt collector does not follow the procedure?

Whoever is trying to collect from you for the bounced check must follow these procedures exactly. They are breaking the law if:

  • they demand higher interest or collection fees than described above

  • they demand any interest or collection fees sooner than fifteen days after sending you the Notice of Dishonor

  • they demand attorney fees higher than those set by the court, or they demand attorney fees sooner than fifteen days after sending you the Notice of Dishonor

If they do any of these things in trying to collect from you, they cannot collect interest fees, collection costs, or attorney fees. You will owe only the check's face amount and a reasonable handling fee. (RCW 62A.3-525

How can someone collect a debt from me?

Federal law prevents debt collectors from doing certain things as they try to collect from you.[1]  If a debt collector does any of the following while trying to collect on your bounced check, you may be entitled to damages.

Debt collectors CANNOT:

  • Contact you after they get notice that you have a lawyer.

  • Tell people who know you that they are from a debt collection agency (unless specifically asked) or that you owe a debt while they are trying to find you. They must identify themselves and say they are trying to find you.

  • Talk to anyone, other than those directly connected with the case, about the debt. They cannot tell your employer, relatives or friends that you owe a debt. They can talk to your spouse or your parents (if you are a minor).

  • Contact you anymore, if you write them that you will not pay the debt or you want them to stop contacting you. They may contact you to tell you that they will no longer try to collect the debt, that there are specific actions they can now take against you to solve the problem, or that they are taking specific actions against you to collect the debt (example:  filing suit against you).

  • Threaten you with arrest for not paying.

  • Call you at work if they know it is inconvenient.

Under both federal and Washington law[2], a debt collector cannot:

  • Claim s/he is someone s/he is not – like a government representative, or a lawyer.

  • Claim s/he can take actions that s/he cannot – like taking your house, or telling your boss you owe a debt or that s/he can hurt your credit rating.

Washington law also prohibits debt collectors from doing the following while trying to collect a debt from you:

  • Calling before 7:30 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

  • Calling your house more than three times a week.

  • Calling you at work more than once a week.

If a debt collector breaks any of these rules, you may have a claim against them.

What if I need legal help?

CLEAR is Washington's toll-free, centralized intake, advice and referral service for low-income people seeking free legal assistance with civil legal problems. 

  • Outside King County: Call 1-888-201-1014 weekdays from 9:10 a.m. until 12:25 p.m. CLEAR works with a language line to provide interpreters as needed at no cost to callers. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, call 1-888-201-1014 using your preferred TTY or Video relay service.

  • King County: Call 211 for information and referral to an appropriate legal services provider Monday through Friday from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm. You may also call (206) 461-3200, or the toll-free number, 1-877-211-WASH (9274). 211 works with a language line to provide free interpreters as needed to callers. Deaf and hearing-impaired callers can call 1-800-833-6384 or 711 to get a free relay operator. They will then connect you with 211. You can also get information on legal service providers in King County through 211's website at www.resourcehouse.com/win211/.

  • Persons 60 and Over: Persons 60 or over may call CLEAR*Sr at 1-888-387-7111, regardless of income.

 

Footnotes:


1. Federal "Fair Debt Collection Practices Act" (15 U.S.C. 1692 et. seq.). Read it your local law library or online at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre27.pdf.

2. Washington State "Collection Agencies" law (RCW 19.16.250). Read it at your local law library or online at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=19.16.250.

 

 

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This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of December 2013
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© 2013 Northwest Justice Project. 1-888-201-1014
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)