Protected Funds Not Off Limits To Seizure

Janet Juhasz lives off of government disability. Her bank accounts were illegally frozen by debt collectors.
Janet Yuhasz was injured two years ago, and now lives check-to-check on government disability.

"I started having difficulty keeping up with my bills," she tells CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston.

Debt collectors went after her, sending her bank a court order to freeze her account. She couldn't buy groceries and the bank charged her $150 a processing fee to freeze the account.

"When they placed a lien on your account, what did you think?" Pinkston asked.

"Well, first I got very angry, because I didn't know it was allowed to be done," she said.

It turns out, in her case, it was not allowed. Social Security, welfare, disability and veteran's benefits are all exempt from debt collection.

"Those funds are considered exempt, because they belong to people who are fragile, who have a disability that prevents them from working," says Tanya Douglas, Yuhasz's lawyer.

Yuhasz eventually got the money back.

"But they did keep their legal fee of $150, I believe it was," she said.

Consumer lawyers and advocates point to thousands of cases like Yuhasz's, where protected money is being seized electronically -- leaving the poor and the elderly with depleted accounts, bank fees, and bounced checks.

Pinkston Blogs: Frozen Assets: Holes In The Safety Net
Here's how it can happen. Debt collection firms send banks restraining orders for tens of thousands of delinquent debtors. The bank searches for any matching names in their database, and if they get a match, the account is frozen.

If deposits in the account are exempt from debt collection, it's up to the consumer to sort it out and the bank faces no penalty.

Nessa Feddis of the American Bankers Association says banks are caught in the middle.

"They have to obey a court order, there's no choice there, and they somehow have to determine which dollar came from which deposit," she said.

But some banks do check an account's history to determine if funds are subject to seizure, or exempt, like Social Security.

Legal services lawyer Johnson Tyler says if one bank can do it, they all can.

"They have computer systems that are very sophisticated, and the idea that they can't figure out if an account contains Social Security, only Social Security, is preposterous," Tyler said.

If your exempt account is frozen, consumer advocates say the best thing to do is contact your bank and find a lawyer.