In this weird law story, we’ll hear about an overly-invasive grandmother, a potential federal offense, and the man stuck in the middle of it.
We all know that the cost of living has taken some pretty bizarre turns as the COVID-19 crisis has played out. Food costs are skyrocketing, many struggle to pay their bills, and there are laws in place to prevent certain actions from being taken against consumers. Among them are state laws preventing actions like eviction during fixed windows of time.
This is what makes the tale of Austin Goodrich so interesting. Living in his Oregon apartment, he knew that his limited income would not mean he would lose the roof over his head. After all, the state had instituted a temporary eviction moratorium in order to prevent a wave of homelessness resulting from the beginning of the state’s response to COVID-19.
Imagine his surprise then when he received a text inquiring about his rent. Not only was the text asking for payment, though. In fact, this was a message that went far beyond.
On April 15, he received a message from the head of TLC Bookkeeping and Tax Prep (which manages the property in which Goodrich rents). It read: You got your stimulus, just asking, are you going to pay rent or part of rent with any? I am trying to close out the books for April.”
He was astonished at the message because…how would anyone know whether or not he’d received the funds? He said as much in his response, asking how the sender knew he’d received his check. Her answer opened the door to a remarkable lawsuit. The bookkeeper said, “Because I had to check several people today and checked yours also. People were calling me.”
What did she mean she had to “check”?
It appears that the bookkeeper used her access to renters’ social security numbers and dates of birth to access the Get My Payment site, which allows individuals to track their stimulus payments. However, as you enter the site, you are greeted with a message that explains that any “unauthorized use of this system is prohibited and subject to criminal and civil penalties.”
So, the bookkeeper had managed to cross the line in several ways. First, she was pursuing payment at a time when there was no legal obligation for a tenant to make that payment. Secondly, she illegally used the IRS website to determine if any of the renters had the stimulus funds in hand.
Although Goodrich was rightfully enraged by the bookkeeper’s actions, he hesitated to file a lawsuit.
Why? Well, it just so happens that the bookkeeper guilty of invading his privacy and demanding payment was also his grandmother!
Fortunately, he had a change of heart when he began to think about the other people that had experienced the same invasion of privacy and unreasonable financial demands.
He told one newspaper that he was speaking out because he felt other tenants had suffered similar abuses. He also wanted to alert the IRS to the vulnerability of their super-simple tool. Clearly intended to help individuals track the funds they needed for food, medicine, and everyday expenses as states shut down, the tool made fraud rather easy.
Did the behavior Mr. Goodrich’s grandmother ruin their relationship? In that same interview, he made it clear that he had no relationship with her before the issue, and that the lawsuit is strictly a matter between the tenant and his property management company.
A grandmother who hacks a federal site to learn if her grandson has any money for rent is probably not the weirdest law story to come out of the COVID-19 crisis, but it definitely ranks highly!