Ed White

Ed White, of Crestwood, has been told he is due a refund of at least $744 for tickets for which he was overcharged. (Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune / October 2, 2013)

The Illinois attorney general has widened an investigation into drivers being overcharged for old parking tickets after a warning that the number of victims and affected suburbs are far higher than previously reported.

The state probe follows a Tribune investigation, published Oct. 30, that reviewed a sample of statements in a handful of suburbs. The newspaper found that the past-due balances on more than 130 old parking tickets — mostly in south suburban Blue Island — had been increased without explanation by a collection firm used by the suburbs: Municipal Collection Services of Palos Heights.

Records show that firm had taken over day-to-day collections from a rival firm. Now that rival firm, Receivables Management, has told the attorney general that, in Blue Island alone, its review found more than 850 mistakes that led to nearly $95,000 in combined overcharges. And it cautioned that errors have been reported by drivers with old tickets in about two dozen suburbs.

"There are potentially several hundred thousand victims across over 50 municipalities," Jeff Wood, one of the firm's executives, wrote in an email to the attorney general's office.

The attorney general's office told the Tribune it has not confirmed Wood's numbers. The agency said it is seeking to get Wood's evidence, meet with Municipal Collection and possibly seek records from suburban governments to try to sort out how many people were overcharged and by how much.

"We are taking a very thorough look at this," said Ann Spillane, chief of staff to Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Towns have long worked with private collection firms to collect overdue fines, with the firms getting a cut of the payments. The Tribune found that the overcharges came as the state comptroller ramped up a program to garnish tax refunds and other state payments from people who supposedly owed debts to local governments.

Wood's emails warned the state that even more suburbs with potentially inaccurate figures used by Municipal Collection may be joining the program this year, in time to garnish tax refunds in the coming months.

"Unfortunately, the data on the ... software in most of these police departments is now completely toxic and nobody knows it," he wrote in one email.

"Anyone who ever had a ticket, paid or not, is potentially the next victim," he wrote.

Municipal Collection, since the Tribune story ran, informed Blue Island that it found it had collected more than $12,000 in overcharges on more than 180 old Blue Island tickets, records show.

While it included a higher number of tickets than the Tribune found, the firm's list did not include some of the examples the newspaper uncovered, including the case of one woman who had $512 of her refund garnished to cover four old tickets on which she owed, at most, 67 cents.

The firm declined to discuss details, including its rival's allegation that far more people are owed far more in refunds than Municipal Collection has acknowledged.

Municipal Collection instead issued a statement saying it "has taken steps to ensure that it is meeting its obligations to its clients and the public" and would "fully cooperate with any government agencies looking into the matter."

Wood did not respond to an email sent to his firm by the Tribune.

His firm, Receivables Management, at one time partnered with Municipal Collection to find debtors in scores of suburbs but had a falling out that led to a lawsuit in 2011 over who got to collect on past-due accounts. Records show Wood's firm kept the only set of accurate records of who owed what, and Municipal Collection began collecting on the disputed accounts before Wood said he gave his rival the only accurate data on debts.

After the Tribune's article, Wood told the state that he compared statements of the amounts Municipal Collection charged drivers to his firm's database and that he found, for Blue Island alone, nearly $155,000 in charges for tickets in which drivers should have owed, at most, about $60,000.

Wood's emails also offer a rare glimpse into how state regulators have spurned a review of the issue.

The state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation oversees the actions of bill collectors, and Wood had complained to the agency since 2011 about Municipal Collection, eventually alleging that consumers were being harmed. An agency investigator told Wood in an email that she wasn't investigating what she called an "issue of municipality record keeping."

The attorney general's office said Wood complained to it too, initially about business issues that did not relate to consumers, but that the attorney general decided to open a review after Wood's more detailed allegations of consumers being harmed.

Still, agency officials warned, the attorney general does not have legal jurisdiction to punish wrongdoing by municipalities, if it finds any.

Still unclear is how many of those overcharged have received refunds.

Blue Island officials declined to answer questions, but they released to the Tribune a stack of letters dated Nov. 19, written on Municipal Collection letterhead and sent to drivers across the region, that listed each of the overcharges totaling $12,000 and said a refund check was enclosed. But three victims reached by the Tribune — all of whom are listed as being sent the letters — said they never got the letters or the refunds.

One, Raymond Johnson, said he did get his refund, but only a month later, after the Tribune sent him a copy of the letter addressed to him. He then knew to call Municipal Collection, which told him the letter was sent certified mail. He then picked it up at the post office.

Victim Ed White said he received no letter. Told by the Tribune of his refund, White said he called Municipal Collection, which said his refund had been sent back to the firm. He said the firm promised to resend it. His letter said he'd get $744 back for five overcharged tickets, although the Tribune found that he was overcharged an additional $140 for a sixth ticket.

White said he'll try to get it all back, eventually.

"It's always something," he said.

jmahr@tribune.com