For many Americans struggling with managing their debt, the simple act of picking up the phone can be terrifying. Why? Debt collectors.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the debt collection industry has seen a boom. And as more and more collection agencies have been entering the market, complaints about collectors’ abusive practices reached all-time highs. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Trade Commission saw a record-high number of consumer complaints about debt collectors in 2011: 164,361.
That rise in complaints doesn’t mean collectors are getting meaner or breaking more laws necessarily. And, according to the four debt collectors we spoke to for this article, the collection businesses they worked for followed the standards and laws set out in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the legislation that tells collectors when and how they can contact you.
We’ve heard stories of overseas debt collector scams, debt collectors going after grieving parents for their son’s debt and debt collectors calling people who don’t even have debts. But we rarely hear stories about what it’s like to actually be a debt collector.
So, we spoke with four people about their experiences as debt collectors and what consumers should know when they get on the phone with them.
Death Threats Are Part of the Job
If there was one universal among all four debt collectors we spoke with, it was that death threats happen.
“One time someone mailed us human excrement in a box,” said Kerri Fivecoat, a freelance journalist who worked in the debt collection industry for more than a decade. “It happened at the internal third-party agency I worked at. We always had lots of bomb scares.”
Being a debt collector can be a scary experience, says Ben Nettleton, who used to work in a third-party collection agency in the Houston area. While his stint as a debt collector lasted only 89 days, he was left a very threatening voicemail one night by a man who called himself a “straight shooter.”
“I got this and I’m not someone who’s offended easily, but it did make me think,” Nettleton said. “Does it throw you and kind of shake you? Yeah. I didn’t call him back.”
The death threats combined with the emotional stories from the people they call makes debt collection a tough career path. Bryan Franzoi, who is currently working as operations manager at Cumulus Funding and has spent more than 15 years in debt collections, said the housing crash of 2008 and 2009 was especially tough.
“You’re a human being, you’re going to be affected by it. There have been times where it has been very upsetting to me,” he said. When Franzoi was working as a manager of debt collectors, he even had an employee break down on the floor and start crying.
Michelle Dunn, a debt collector and author of “Dealing With Aggressive Debt Collectors: What to Do and How to Do It by an Industry Insider,” says it’s hard not to take consumers’ threats personally, but the key is trying to understand the position the debtors are in.
“When somebody’s in debt and they have bill collectors calling them, that’s not their only problem. They normally have something else going on,” Dunn says. “The last thing you need is a bill collector calling you. They may lash out on you. I’ve had people tell me they were going to find where my children went to school.”
Not All of Us Are Mean
Imagine going to a party and telling someone that you’re a debt collector. It’s not exactly the most popular career path.
“People cringe when you tell them what you do,” Dunn says. “A lot of times you don’t want to tell them what you do. They’re only dealing with debt collectors when they’re in a bad situation.”
While most of the debt collectors that Fivecoat worked with would try to take a more calm and compassionate approach with debtors, there were a few bad eggs.
“There are people [who enjoy debt collection],” she says. “They would really get into what they were doing and they didn’t have the personality to start out with people being nice. Sometimes it was effective when they were being more forceful or more assertive.”
Even though he has worked with some bad collectors, Franzoi said the stigma about debt collectors is just incorrect.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100 that’s a totally wrong misconception and they’re really trying to put them in a better financial situation,” he said.
Fivecoat says she was normally a top performer at her company just by listening to the people on the phone and trying to come up with solutions. Dunn echoed the same sentiment.
“Most people who are bill collectors, they don’t take happiness in yelling at people,” Dunn says. “They don’t get into this business because they have to be mean to people.”
If you’re faced with a debt collector who is aggressive, Fivecoat says the best path to take is to ask to speak with someone else. She employed this strategy herself when she and her husband were in a tight financial spot and were receiving collection calls of their own.
“As collectors, we would trade off people if someone might not be able to make headway with them,” she says. “There’s always someone they can transfer you to.”
There Is a Right Way to Act When We Call
Every debt collector we spoke with had some advice for consumers. The one echoed most often was to stay in touch.
“The worst thing they can do is ignore the calls,” Dunn says. “Send a letter, at least respond in some way. Wait until they close and call, if they want to avoid the conflict. By ignoring it, the account gets escalated to legal quicker and they’ll get calls more often and even letters.”
Franzoi says honesty is also a key component of communicating with debt collectors.
“A lot of consumers will run and hide and not answer the phone and then we have to go about hunting them down,” he says. “If someone answers the phone and is honest with us, we can normally find a solution.”
Each of the collectors said they’ve heard some great excuses.
“You can usually tell if someone is really full of it or if it was an excuse,” Nettleton said.
Some of the best whoppers? Dunn once dealt with a woman who claimed that she wrote out all the checks to pay her bills and then was robbed in the parking lot of the post office. She also had a woman claim she couldn’t send the money because she had just had a baby that month. The only problem was that the same woman had claimed she had given birth the month before.
“I guess she forgot she told me that because she had a baby this month, too,” Dunn said with a laugh.
Several of the debt collectors agreed that consumers often think they have to pay the full bill or nothing at all, and that can be a costly mistake. Payment plans are a tool that collectors like to use to get consumers to start paying the debt, even if it’s only a small bit at a time. Dunn says she’s set up payment plans for some people that were for $5 or $25 a month because, in the end, she was able to get them to commit to paying something and keep communication lines open.
“If [the debtors] are receptive to it, I can take them through their monthly bills and try to get them in better financial shape,” Franzoi says. “The last thing your bank wants to do is charge off your account or foreclose on your house.”
It’s not just overspending or lavish lifestyles that lead the debt collectors to your home. The debt collectors we spoke with all acknowledged that circumstances like an illness or unemployment would often lead people into debt, not necessarily overspending or a lavish lifestyle.
“We get a lot of financially illiterate people who don’t know how to set a budget” Franzoi says. “Their credit cards are their savings account and one small shakeup in their life can spiral them out of control. For the most part, it’s hard to pinpoint just one specific type of debtor.”
Even though she’s received death threats in her career as a debt collector, Dunn says she has also received thanks.
“I’ve gotten thank you cards from debtors,” she says. “If they owe you money, most of the time they owe other people money, too. I just treated them differently.”
Image: aussiegall, via Flickr