Swindlers and scammers. Con artists and charlatans. Businesspeople who take money, make promises and never deliver.
The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, a civil arm of the Attorney General’s office, is tasked with taking crooks to court in an attempt to get restitution for customers and punish bad actors across all kinds of businesses.
The agency often scores big paydays. On paper, at least.
But in reality, many judgements and settlements are tough, if not impossible, to collect.
NJ Advance Media reviewed nearly 10 years of records — from 2012 to through the end of July 2021 — to see how much the state has been able to collect on court orders and settlement agreements with the agency.
In nearly 10 years, Consumer Affairs won or was awarded more than $260 million from more than 2,300 cases that included Notices of Violation, Orders on Default and Final Judgments. (Collectively, we will call these matters “settlements.”)
The defendants paid more than $156 million on the debts, leaving nearly $104 million, or some 40%, uncollected.
Consumer Affairs says it makes efforts to recoup the money, but it’s not always successful.
The state will file unpaid orders or judgments with the Superior Court as a lien on a defendant’s property, but if the defendant has no assets, the state is often out of luck, it said. It can also suspend state-issued licenses or registrations to compel defendants to pay, but that often doesn’t do the trick. And, it will work with the Treasury Department to collect tax refunds before they are sent to the debtors.
“It’s difficult and sometimes impossible to recover funds from scammers and con artists, but that doesn’t stop us from pursuing these wrongdoers and trying to collect the money they owe,” said Sean Neafsey, acting director of Consumer Affairs.
In the end, it leaves taxpayers out a whole lot of cash.
The 10 biggest debtors collectively owe nearly three-quarters of the money owed, or more than $75.7 million.
Of the top 10, eight are home improvement contractors.
Use our look-up tool below to see who owes the state money.
MORE ABOUT THE DATA
Consumer Affairs doesn’t have a single clearinghouse where it keeps data about the money its owed. So at NJ Advance Media’s request, it created spreadsheets listing all the cases from 2012 through the end of July. From that, we created the searchable database showing the amount a defendant was ordered to pay and how much is still owed.
The total due excludes any waived penalties or fees, something that happens if the accused adheres to certain requirements of a settlement.
The amounts do include penalties, fees, restitution and the state’s legal costs.
The data shows that Consumer Affairs was more likely to collect large sums from multi-state settlements, such as those involving pharmaceutical companies or car manufacturers, while home improvement contractors as a group were the least likely to pay.
It’s important to note that some cases may be excluded from the list because Consumer Affairs does not have one repository for the information. Additionally, some of the cases on the list are on payment plans while others are delinquent.
The settlement list provided by Consumer Affairs includes data from the Office of Consumer Protection, the Lemon Law Unit, the Charities Registration Section, Legalized Games of Chance and the Regulated Business Section, which includes travel, health clubs, kosher and halal businesses, employment agencies, public movers, home improvement contractors and a host of other areas.
Settlements from its 49 boards and committees, which are in charge of monitoring professionals such as medical professionals, beauticians and electricians, were not included. Neither were those from the New Jersey Drug Control Unit, the Bureau of Securities and the Office of Weights and Measures.
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NJ Advance Media reporters S.P Sullivan and Nick Devlin contributed to this report.
Karin Price Mueller may be reached at [email protected].