Sue of New Britain is proud of her daughter, who is now a college freshman.
“[She] has straight As now in her spring semester," said Sue. "She’s looking forward to going back next year.”
Her daughter was in the band, active in her church and a decent student in high school. Sue asked that we use a different name for her because she doesn't want people to know about a moment in time when she wasn't particularly proud of her daughter's lapse in judgment – she was caught shoplifting.
"Many kids screw up," said Sue. "She definitely learned her lesson."
It happened in 2011 at JC Penney at Westfarms Mall. Security stopped her before she could make it out of the store with a $10 pair of shorts.
As a first-time offense, the case was referred to a juvenile review board in New Britain. Their goal is to make sure the lesson is learned without a criminal record. They also examine and deal with deeper issues that may have led to the bad behavior.
Sue's daughter performed community service as part of her agreement. They thought the whole ordeal was behind them.
“A couple of months later, a letter comes from an attorney stating that, from New York nonetheless, that she needs to pay $300 or there’s going to be repercussions," said Sue.
That letter came from Long Island attorney Michael Ira Asen. He claimed to represent JC Penney, and demanded a payment of $300 on the company's behalf, citing two state statutes in the claim. Sue says she received at least six similar letters and calls at work. Her daughter was even called on her cellphone while at school.
“I don’t have that kind of money to pay," said Sue. "Who are these people? Why are they from out of state? Why are they harassing me?”
She turned to Chris Montes, Director of Community Services for the city of New Britain, for guidance.
“It looks very official," said Montes. "It looks as if this is something you have to do. You must pay this.”
Montes says youth services organizations from across the state have seen similar demands from Michael Ira Asen. These civil claims are unrelated to the juvenile review boards, but Montes knows of several cases in which parents paid up fearing the outcome if they didn't.
“The fear of $300 growing into something much larger is certainly looming on these families," said Montes. "So they’ll spend the $300, $400, $500 and hopefully it goes away.”
Montes says in every case he is aware of, when these letters are ignored, Michael Ira Asen eventually goes away. He doesn’t know of any instances in which these cases have ended up in a Connecticut courtroom, and he doesn’t think these claims are valid. He’s not alone.
“The claims asserted in these letters do not appear to me to be supported by law," said Rocky Hill consumer attorney Dan Blinn.
He believes the two state statutes that are being cited in the demand letters don't apply to underage shoplifters, and he doesn't think these cases would hold up if they went before a judge.
“I would be surprised if a serious lawyer tried to enforce these types of claims in court," said Blinn. "They appear to me to be designed to scare people into writing a check.”
The letters didn't intimidate the Department of Children and Families. After several juveniles under their supervision received these letters, DFC stent a stern warning in May of 2013 to Asen and his colleague, Alexander Ferrante, to cease and desist or the state would fight back and seek damages. DCF Legal Director Barbara Claire says that following that letter, Asen and Ferrante backed off.
Several attempts to contact both Asen and Ferrante by phone and email were unsuccessful. In the corner of the letterhead was a Trumbull, Connecticut address – a private suburban home owned by Ferrante, though his offices are in Pennsylvania.
Last week, we were able to reach Ferrante by phone at his out-of-state office. He cut the call short, but not before saying that they get the information about shoplifters from retailers. He also alleged they don't send claim letters to juveniles. He promised to call us back after he could collect more information to answer our questions. We have not heard from him since.
After several failed attempts at reaching Asen, we visited his Long Island offices in person. We were told he was unavailable, and that we needed to call and set up an appointment.
The Troubleshooters reached out to JC Penney and Walmart – both retailers are named in letters we obtained. JC Penney declined to comment. Walmart did not return our calls or emails.
“I am troubled by what I see. It doesn’t look good," said Mark DuBois, President Elect of the Connecticut Bar Association.
DuBois believes these claims are invalid, and that these letters are pushing ethical limits.
“It is dishonest," said DuBois. "If they have a valid claim they should spell it out, and then it should be responded to. But don’t tart up or dress up a claim that doesn’t exist and then try to scare people into sending you money.”
We asked Attorney General George Jepsen, whose office was notified of these sorts of practices by at least two different agencies over the past two years, if the letters from Asen and Ferrante are in line with the state statutes they claim. His office responded with a statement that read, in part, that "the current state of the law does not provide sufficiently clear grounds for this office to initiate enforcement action against any business sending these letters."
Chris Montes wants Jepsen to take a tougher stance and conduct an investigation to find out how much money Asen and Ferrante have taken in from these letters.
Sue says she just wants them to stop.
“I find it disgusting that they prey on parents and children that have made mistakes, trying to get money for their own greed,” she said.