Convictions rise for merchandise renters who default

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - During these tough economic times, many people rent-to-own merchandise: a TV, a washer and dryer, or a bedroom set, when they can't afford to buy them. But missing payments can land you in jail. Virginia law allows companies to press criminal charges against renters who default.

Virginia has had an increase in these criminal cases over recent years. Is it due to theft? Or to people falling on hard times?

A dealer can repossess that TV, or sue you for the cost. But Virginia law also lets them press criminal charges. Convictions have gone up from 33 in 2008 to 53 in 2010.

Attorney Lloyd Snook has defended rental customers.

"l think fundamentally that it's wrong that we give to civil plaintiffs, people trying to collect money, the power to threaten jail time to get their money back," he told us.

But the Association of Progressive Rental Organizations says these prosecutions come after trying and trying to collect payments or the goods.

"There are, alas in the world, rental thieves, people who lie to rental companies in order to obtain merchandise. They get $2 to $3 thousand dollar big screen tv's that they one-week rent, and they run off with it and pawn it," said APRO's general counsel Ed Winn.

Consumer advocates say defaulting renters should return the goods, but say this law allows companies to use prosecutors to collect money from people who may have lost a job, had to move, or are overwhelmed from piling up debt.

"If someone calls you and threatens to prosecute you, you will pay them first, including your mortgage and your rent and your light bill. You will pay them because you're scared," said Jay Speer, Executive Director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

We asked APRO's Ed Winn about whether dealers seek criminal prosecutions against customers who have made some payments on a rental, then stopped.

Winn told us, "No that's not theft, that is a civil matter. ... I would certainly tell dealers not to do that, no." Though criminal cases have been filed against customers who have made payments.

In Manchester Circuit Court, ten cases were filed since 2007 from rent-to-own and other companies. Three cases were dropped. Three were dismissed, usually when the defendant paid the balance owed or restitution. Three were convictions with suspended sentences of 1-3 years. The tenth case was still pending.

It could become more difficult for rental companies to bring these cases to trial. Just last month, the Virginia Court of Appeals overturned a conviction, arguing the prosecution did not prove the defendant intended to commit fraud and the rental company failed to send her the required notice that her account was past due.

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