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One morning there was a knock at the door. S. opened it, to find two strangers. They were bailiffs, they told her, and demanded that she immediately pay a debt incurred by her son - NIS 1,098 - on a parking ticket dating from 2003. If she didn't they would seize assets in her home and sell them.

Her son doesn't live with her, S. tried to explain, and she had no idea what they were talking about. The bailiffs were unmoved. She tried calling the police but was rebuffed: The police don't handle cases of property seizure due to debt, she learned. Worried that the bailiffs would empty her apartment, she gave them a crossed check postdated by a month, enough time to explain to city hall that her son lived elsewhere.

During that month, S. presented the collection agency with documents from the city of Rehovot attesting that her son lived at another address. But the company cashed the check, saying that by giving it, she had admitted to the debt's existence.

She contacted the organization Yedid, which represented her in court. They argued that the seizure had been illegal because hers was not the debtor's address, there had been no advance notice as required by law, and the check had been conditional. The collection case was canceled and S. got her money back.

But S. is far from alone. The Consumer Council and Yedid get hundreds of similar complaints every year, pleas for help from people who found bailiffs at the door - but who hadn't known of any debt in arrears.

Israel still has a law on its books dating from 1929 during the British Mandate. It allows the local authorities and private companies claiming debt to slap liens on bank accounts and attachments on cars and on any asset really - without any supervision.

Private companies need a court's permission to seize property. But in the event of debt to a government agency, be it the Tax Authority or a municipality, collection is carried out under the Tax Law's collection article, which permits the government to seize property without going to court. Collection is carried out by the government body itself, by an authorized collection official, as in the days of the mandate.

At present, to impose a lien on an asset, the collection agent has to send a warning by registered mail. That's sufficient proof for him that the debtor received notice, which is mandatory before the bailiffs arrive to take possession of assets.

But the Consumer Council and Yedid argue that a person who received a collection notice from a local authority or any other body has nowhere to protest or rebut. All he can do is countersue in court, which involves hiring a lawyer.

"This collection method is draconian," says a source at the Consumer Council. People feel helpless to prevent the collection machine from rolling on, even if their claims are correct. "Leaving collection in the hands of a single body that makes the demand, issues the judgment and executes it is wrong."

An ounce of prevention

The court has addressed the problem of the harm to the public more than once, in rulings that generally found for the consumer and were critical of the authorities using the law as a fig leaf.

For instance, Judge Yael Klugman of the Netanya Magistrate's Court wrote in a ruling against the city of Petah Tikva three months ago that the city's administrative collection power under the Tax Law (Collection ) goes too far, to the detriment of the individual.

She quoted Judge Gideon Ginat in Israel Railways' appeal against the city of Hadera: "It is doubtful whether that power meets the principles of administrative-constitutional law, in the era after the enactment of the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom (1992 )." In any case, said Klugman quoting Gadot, the law should be exercised with leniency and extreme caution.

As long as the Tax Law (Collection ) is in force, say the Consumer Council and Yedid, all consumers can do is try to avoid building up debt and facing liens. Keep documents attesting to payment. Keep credit card printouts, and especially keep records of fines and debts that are paid. Do not ignore letters of warning from lawyers or collection agents. Nip the trouble in the bud: Don't let it develop into a monster that can take over your life.

To avoid building up city taxes without even realizing it, never neglect to personally advise the local authority when you move. Make sure your name is removed as possessor of the property or tenant. Change your address at the Interior Ministry while about it, so nobody can claim they couldn't find you.

If you have doubts about a debt claimed against you, appeal immediately by demanding trial in court, or arrange a date for a hearing at the Administrative Affairs Court. If you don't, you could lose your right to appeal, which means you can't overturn the debt: The local authority will be free to take administrative steps against you.

If you summon an ambulance but are not hospitalized overnight, pay the debt to Magen David Adom. Patients listed with one of the HMOs don't have to pay for ambulance service only if they are hospitalized overnight. From February 2010, there is an agreement that the HMOs have to pay Magen David Adom directly, if the patient summoning an ambulance is validated by being hospitalized.

But that arrangement isn't retroactive and doesn't apply to people defined as owing Magen David Adom money, even if they were hospitalized. Yedid is trying to iron out a compromise between Magen David Adom and the HMOs to apply the arrangement retroactively.

As for television tax (the agra ), make sure to advise the Israel Broadcast Authority in writing if you get rid of your TV. If you move into a home that has a TV and the tax on it is already being paid, tell the IBA so in writing, lest you wind up being billed for it too. In both cases, make sure the IBA got your letter and updated its records.

When tickets are sent to the wrong address

In 2009, E. and his wife received notice that their account had been restricted because of three parking tickets in Jerusalem dating from 2006. The couple was astonished. They knew nothing of the tickets.

When they called the Jerusalem municipality that had slapped the restriction on their account, to find out why they hadn't been advised of the tickets, they were told the city had sent demands to a certain address, taken from the records at the Transportation Ministry. But it was the wrong one. The couple argued that they had in fact advised the Interior Ministry and the Transportation Ministry of their change of address.

They sued the Jerusalem municipality at the Small Claims Court in Jerusalem, arguing that the restriction on their account was illegal because it had been applied after the statute of limitations on the tickets had expired and because the tickets may have been sent, but not to them. The court agreed and ruled them NIS 5,000 compensation.

In one case, the IBA restricted an account even though the tenant lived with her parents who paid the TV tax.

In 2001 A. bought a television. It didn't occur to her that it would cost her NIS 6,000 extra one day.

Letter from the IBA

"Four years ago, to my surprise, I received a demand to pay a debt in arrears from the IBA, starting in 2001," she says. It took her a while to figure it out. Then she realized that she'd bought the TV while living with her parents. Since they paid TV tax, she didn't think she had to pay too.

She wrote to the IBA explaining the circumstances and added that she no longer possessed the TV. But the authority ignored her claims, she says, and then some months ago her bank called to say that her account had been restricted over a NIS 6,000 debt. Realizing that she'd need a lawyer if she were to tackle the issue with the bailiffs, she gave up and paid.

The IBA said it found that A.'s address was not the same as her parents in Ra'anana. Article 6 of the IBA rules that tax on the possession of a television requires people to advise the IBA of changes in the television's address within 30 days of moving. A. advised the IBA of the change in her address only in 2007, and under the law, it couldn't accept her notice in retrospect. But it did void its demand for payment from 2009, and plans to collect on her debt from 2008.