Public venue, private debt

Saturday, July 22, 2006
Irene Spinner has used a portable sign to display the names of people who have written bad checks to Audio One in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Area businesses use signs to keep bad-check writers in check.

The wording on the marquis sign has nothing to do with the price of burritos. But those at Burrito-Ville in Cape Girardeau hope it sends a lingering message to those who might be tempted to pass a bad check at their restaurant.

Do it and we will publicly humiliate you.

The sign outside the restaurant at 913 Broadway is harsh: "Hey bad check Meghan Vinyard. No burrito for you."

But manager Kris Baranovic said the sign has two purposes -- to chastise Vinyard for writing three bad checks totaling about $80 and to make would-be bad-check passers think twice before doing it.

And Baranovic isn't concerned about people who may disagree with their humiliation tactics.

"If they knew how much money she owes us, I don't think the sympathy factor would be there," he said. "She pretty much forfeited all sympathy with three bad checks."

Vinyard, who has charges pending against her for two counts of bad-check writing and one charge of forgery, could not be reached for comment.

Burrito-Ville isn't the only area establishment that is doing this. Restaurant and store owners have long posted the names of bad-check writers on the walls or near cash registers. Audio 1 on William Street in Cape Girardeau is also alternating three names on an outside marquis sign for the past several weeks.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said such signs are not only lawful -- they're funny.

"I enjoy seeing a businessman with a sense of humor," Swingle said. "And I think anything that deters criminals from writing bad checks is to be encouraged. I predict that Burrito-Ville will not be victimized by bad-check writers in the near future."

Swingle did have one precaution -- making sure that the information on the signs is accurate. Such signs are only legal as long as the information is accurate. At Burrito-Ville, for example, Vinyard's first name is misspelled -- it's actually Meghann with two N's, according to court documents related to her charges.

"But mainly they'd be at risk if they put up a sign with somebody's name who actually did not write a bad check," Swingle said. "Otherwise, they're fine."

Jim Yount, whose name was listed on a sign outside Audio 1, didn't think it was so funny. However, he says it didn't bother him as much as the owner probably hopes it does.

"I don't ever even come to Cape," said Yount, who lives in the county. "They can put my name up there and plaster it all over Cape. It doesn't bother me a bit. But I still don't think it's a good thing to do."

Yount said that he doesn't owe Audio 1 -- a pawn shop -- any money, that the bad-check situation is their mistake and that he has paid them in full for a ring he bought.

Audio 1 says he wrote several bad checks at their store and that he should pay. That's why they are listing names on the outside marquis sign.

"We're just doing it as a last resort," said office manager Irene Spinner. "We give them every opportunity."

Local defense attorneys were split on the issue.

Lawyer Al Lowes said he sided with Swingle and the businesses.

"If they're going to write bad checks, I think the public ought to know," he said. "I don't see a thing wrong with it. Commerce depends on people making checks good. ... And if they can't make them good, they shouldn't be writing them. ... Better to have them do that than have Morley throw them in jail."

Lawyer Stephen Wilson, however, called it "a highly unprofessional way to do business."

Wilson said he's told business clients that do similar things that it's risky. He knows of cases where names were wrong and that if someone else has that name, they could sue.

"I think it exposes them to a lot of risk," Wilson said.

Consumer credit groups also took the businesses to task, saying that such signs are mean-spirited and pointless.

"It's in poor taste, and I am shocked that someone would stoop to that," said Bob Currier, director of education for American Consumer Credit Counseling. "I think they're missing good ethical business practices. You don't do that to somebody."

Many people have inadvertently written bad checks, he said. Businesses that take multiple bad checks also share some culpability. Business owners can avoid such repeat offenders with the technology that treats checks like debit cards and scans the account.

"But putting their name on a sign is unbelievable," he said. "I'm sure she's just ready to crawl beneath a rock."

Meanwhile, at Burrito-Ville, manager Baranovic said he doesn't know if they'll do it again and they'll look at it on a case-by-case basis.

"We definitely wanted to call her out," he said. "And we've had a lot of people come in and tell us it's great. Nobody likes someone who goes around writing bad checks all over town."

smoyers@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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