Wednesday, July 21, 2004

If you still haven’t paid your local Girl Scout for that box of Thin Mints, now’s the time to pony up.

The Scouts have hired a little muscle to get their money.

Several local councils have retained Fidelity Information Corp., a Pacific Palisades, Calif., debt-collection company. Fidelity’s online division,, has mailed 2,000 letters to delinquent cookie customers in the Midwest. Others may follow.

Jeff Cronrod, Fidelity’s president and chief executive officer, won’t say how many Girl Scout troops or councils have hired his agents, but the new clients have been working with Fidelity for the past seven months.

“Honestly, I had never heard of any such problem before,” he says. “The Girl Scouts were not even on our radar screen.”

Representatives of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. aren’t talking, either, but it’s clear that now that the cookies have crumbled, the Scouts want their money. “While Girl Scout councils have an excellent record of handling delinquent accounts, many councils use professional collection agencies after they have made initial attempts to collect on bad debts,” a spokesman for the organization says.

In most councils, uncollected cookie money makes up less than 1 percent of total revenue, but sales of the popular treat make up a substantial sum for the regional Scout councils.

The Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital, which has 4,038 troops in the Washington metropolitan area, had an outstanding debt in 2003 of $30,000, according to BusinessWeek.

Annual cookie sales, which generally take place between January and April, are run locally by Brownie, Junior Scout and Girl Scout groups, which determine how much the cookies cost and how the cookies are paid for.

A box of Samoas or Tagalongs typically costs $3 to $4, depending on where they are sold.

Part of the proceeds, about 50 to 65 cents per box, stays in the local group. The rest goes to the council covering the area and Girl Scouts’ two contract bakers. There are 315 Girl Scout councils in the United States.

The aggressiveness in claiming the cookie funds is up to each group, Fidelity’s Mr. Cronrod says. Groups send up to four letters to debtors, report their deficits to three credit bureaus and have telephone calls made through the agency.

Girl Scout councils may take their cases to a small-claims court. Any use of a pledge, which allows consumers to promise to pay for cookies at a later date, puts Scout moms and troops at risk for reneged payments, says Audrey Alvarado, executive director for the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, a D.C. trade group.

Nonprofit groups tend to have higher return rates than regular companies, Mr. Cronrod says. “People are more willing to pay back their pledge or promise to a nonprofit more quickly than a doctor’s bill or car payment.”

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