The rubber prize check
Last summer, I made the long drive from Connecticut to Illinois for a major bike race. I had a great time, and plan to do it again next summer, but I’m having a huge problem. I made some money at one race, they gave me a check, all said and done, right? No! The check bounced, so I called the promoter to see what was up.
We exchanged both phone calls and emails and (the promoter) said he would take care of it. However, when I called to check in and see how the process was going several days later, he never called me back.
Now it’s been months, and he still hasn’t returned my many, many calls or emails. Am I forced to simply take this as a loss, or is there anything more I can do? It’s not even that much money, but I’m a college student and every bit helps, especially when it’s rightfully mine!
Yours is an all-too-common problem as promoters – even big ones – struggle with the costs of putting on an event and hoping that the money from sponsors hits the bank before prize recipients start cashing their checks. But my sympathy for the plight of some promoters takes nothing away from the fact that they have a legal obligation to back up any check they write you or anyone else.
First off, you are not “forced to simply take this as a loss.” A check is a financial instrument, a document that has real monetary value and represents a legally enforceable agreement regarding your right to payment. There is no way you should simply write it off.
A check represents the writer’s obligation to either have sufficient funds in the bank, or to have some sort of credit arrangement in place (i.e. overdraft protection) to cover it. Assuming it’s a simple accounting error and the money just didn’t happen to be in the account when you cashed it, the check writer is obviously still required to cover it and may be liable for other costs that you incurred trying to collect it. If he never intended to pay you and just handed you a check to keep you quiet on the podium, it is clearly a criminal matter and we’ll touch on that, too.
From the sounds of it, you took the proper first steps, namely attempting to cash the check and then contacting the promoter. Assuming you’ve tried to cash the check only once thus far, I would suggest your next step is to contact the bank upon which the check was drawn. Find out if there are sufficient funds to cover it if you send it through again. If there are, send it in and do it quickly. The bank is not able to “hold” the funds for you, so speed is of the essence.
If that fails, keep trying to reach the promoter by phone. Be reasonable, though, and don’t call 20 times a day, or at weird hours, but do make a reasonable effort to reach him or to leave a message and give him another chance to return the call.
If you don’t have any luck using the phone, use the services of the good ol’ U.S. Postal Service. Write a polite letter (I would not, for example, suggest calling the guy a “worthless @#$%*!*er, no matter how much you’re tempted to), stating the problem. Include a copy (not the original!) of the rubber check, resplendent with all of those nice “NSF” marks from the bank to underscore your point. Send it via Certified Mail, meaning that the recipient will have to sign for the letter, eliminating the old “it must have gotten lost in the mail” routine.
Sending a written demand notice is the first step in opening the door to civil court, allowing you to recover not only the face value of the check, but “reasonable” collection fees. Most states have defined what “reasonable” might be in statutes. At this point, you’re entitled to start racking up those “reasonable” costs and make sure the promoter knows you’re aware of that right. In Illinois, that means that you are able to recover three times the face value of the check up to $500. You can also add court costs and attorneys’ fees if it comes to that.
Your next step might be to hire a collection agency. The best approach would be to contact an agency operating in the promoter’s home state, given that the check was drawn on an Illinois bank and involved a transaction that took place there as well. It will make your life easier if you have a representative (in this case, the collection agency) operating on your behalf in that jurisdiction.
Again, collection agencies aren’t free, but you’re likely to be able to chalk up some of that amount to the “reasonable” collection costs and you may just get the full face value of the check.
If the promoter wrote the check knowing full well that he didn’t – and wouldn’t – have the funds, he may be criminally liable. If he has closed the account, knowing that he has outstanding obligations, that is also potentially a criminal matter. In Illinois, that means the person who handed you a fraudulent check can face a fine of up to $500 and a year in jail, or both. And, as should be obvious, he still will owe you the money. You can, of course, go all out and contact the district attorney’s office (preferably in his jurisdiction), but you really should go through the preliminary steps before you call out the big dogs.
As a reminder, your goal should be just to get the money, not to end up in court or even to see the promoter face criminal charges, but you may find you have to push the issue. Ultimately, though, you probably just want the money and, if your finances are anything like mine were in college, you want it quickly. Try to work it out, be polite and be reasonable, but don’t forget that it’s your money we’re talking about here. Never, ever, ever, ever, just “simply take this as a loss.” Not only are you effectively handing him the money, the guy will probably think he pull the same stunt with other riders … and he can’t.
Finally, as a racer, you should really let USA Cycling know that there is a promoter out there issuing rubber checks in place of prize money. Don’t expect USA Cycling to act as your representative or to act as a collection agency on your behalf, but do let them know. It’s a violation of USA Cycling – and UCI – rules and outstanding prize obligations are reason for the governing body not to issue future race permits.
Good luck, and please let us all know how it turned out.
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