Confessions of a Debt Collector

It's 6:30 p.m. on a weekday evening, and you settle into your chair to enjoy a relaxing dinner. You're startled when the telephone rings. A feeling of dread comes over you as the phone's harsh trill reminds you that all is not right in your world. Someone is after you and he wants your money. You recognize the number displayed on the caller ID. It's the same bill collector who's been calling your home for the past two weeks. You realize you can't escape and you finally answer the phone. Does this scenario sound familiar?

Each day thousands of Americans receive calls like this from collections agencies. Americans are becoming more and more in debt thanks to borrowing money with means like credit cards, student loans and car loans. With this grim reality comes the likelihood that you or someone you know has been disturbed during dinner or at work by a debt collector. But have you ever wondered what it's like to work as a debt collector?

Some people might think these individuals go to great lengths to hunt down each debtor on their lists, but this isn't necessarily true. How do we know? Well, we've contacted one to get the inside scoop. We'll call her Ashley to protect her identity. Ashley has been working as a debt collector in Hampton Roads, Va. for a little over a year.

When she first started working in the role, she had to get accustomed to the constant chatter going on around her. "It's a call center. It was kind of confusing to hear hundreds of conversations at one time. There are about 200 people that work on the floor," she says.

A Day in the Life

Ashley works the night shift from 1:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and gets paid $13.20 an hour. The majority of her calls are made from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. when she can actually get a hold of the most customers. During a typical shift, she makes approximately 300 calls. Out of those 300 calls, she only makes contact with about 30 people. "We leave more messages because it's an automatic dial-in. They (customers) will hear something like, 'Please hold for an important call from ...' Then I'll hear an irate person say, 'Hello?' They're wondering why there isn't a person on the phone," says Ashley. Of course many customers hang up after hearing the recording. Ashley explains that since all calls are automatically dialed through a computer, the collector will hear a beep right before the call starts.

She only has 30 seconds or less of down time between calls, and she rarely if ever speaks to the same customer twice. Collectors are instructed to keep each call under two minutes. Due to the high volume of calls, her employers say this rapid-fire automated calling is the most cost effective method. Ashley says that her phone calls are ruled by an exacting script she must follow. She explains that during a call, the collector has to identify herself, state why she is calling, ask why the bill is delinquent and ask when the customer can pay.

At the end of each call, she has to remind the customer when the bill was due, the amount owed and the available payment options. She will also ask for an alternative phone number or a work number where the debtor can be reached. Debt collectors' calls are randomly monitored, and they have to achieve a challenging 90 percent for quality on their scorecard. Ashley says, "They'll mark you off if you say something different (than what's scripted). Quality assurance rules and the people who are monitoring calls vary, so you don't know what you'll be marked off for." Sometimes collectors get marked off for situations that are out of their control. For example, one of her fellow employees got a demerit because a customer hung up on him.

In order to avoid what's called "early termination," they are advised to keep the customer on the line and say, "Please hold on. This will only take a second." In her time working as a debt collector, Ashley has heard her share of irate and vulgar customers, from the person who called her "the devil" to those who use racial slurs and curse her out. Ashley tells the story of a phone call to an unemployed woman whose husband had also lost his job. When Ashley asked how much could be paid toward the sum owed, the woman replied, "Nothing. My husband and I don't have any money. I can't get welfare because I'm white and not a minority."

Ashley says she tries hard to push her emotions aside when dealing with such offensive clientele. Other customers seem like they are angry at the world and are looking to pick a fight, like one of Ashley's debtors from New York. He refused to pay the money he owed, but then kept Ashley on the phone in an attempt to argue with her. He told Ashley, "I'm tired of you people threatening to mess up my credit!" Ashley replied, "I'm not going to go back and forth with you." The man yelled, "So I guess you don't want the money!" and hung up. "The reality is that we don't care as much as they think we do," says Ashley. Sometimes Ashley just can't be bothered with objectionable consumers, even if it means getting a demerit for an early termination.

She says, "I personally just hang up, whether it's because of their sarcasm or tone. I just don't feel like dealing with it. I don't worry about the consequences." If a customer is especially egregious, she's allowed to terminate the call without being penalized, but she has to document the incident by saying something vague like, "Cardholder used profanity." Other times, she feels sorry for customers who can't pay their bills and then have to face high finance charges. She once spoke to a woman who told Ashley, "I've been out of work on maternity leave, and I've lost my baby. I'm going back to work in August. Can you hold the late payment fees until September?" When Ashley refused, the woman cried hysterically and said, "I'm doing the best that I can." Calls like this break Ashley's heart, "I wish there was something that I could do, but sorry, I can't. Buying on credit is not the way."

Under Pressure

Debt collectors throughout the U.S. have to follow strict rules put forth by the Federal Trade Commission. According to the FTC's Facts for Consumers on Fair Debt Collection: • A collector may not contact a debtor at inconvenient times or places, such as before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m., unless otherwise agreed upon. A debt collector also may not contact a debtor at work if the collector knows that the debtor's employer disapproves of such contacts. • If the debtor has an attorney, the debt collector must contact the attorney instead of the debtor. • In most cases, the collector may only communicate to the debtor that money is owed.

A collector may contact other people, but only to find out the debtor's address, phone number or place of employment. Collectors are typically prohibited from contacting such third parties more than once. Despite a myriad of laws that Ashley must follow, her employer enforces demanding quotas. Ashley has to collect about $130,000 in overdue bills per month. If a collector doesn't make that quota, they're put on what's called "corrective action." This means that they have to make 85 percent of that goal within three months. Ashley complains that managers make it really difficult to achieve that goal. "You can't work overtime or change hours. Really, they'll give you six months to do it, but if you don't, you'll get fired," says Ashley.

'Above and Beyond'

The increasingly urgent need for U.S. businesses to maintain positive cash flow boosts the importance of collecting unpaid debts sooner. As a result, the workload for collectors is expected to increase as they seek to collect not only debts that are relatively old, but also debts that are only recently delinquent.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, "Employment of bill and account collectors is expected to grow faster than average for all occupations through 2014." Although many people probably wouldn't consider collections as the ideal job, Ashley enjoys the perks. Departments within her agency compete to become the "team of the month" and have events like potlucks to help motivate them. "They have good benefits," says Ashley. "They pay for babysitting services. The N.Y. office pays for transportation expenses."

Since she's been working there, she's always met her quota and gets .02 percent commission. Ashley had an entirely different perspective of collections before she started working as a debt collector. She's become much more proactive about her own finances after witnessing so many people struggling with monetary crises. "I'm more conscious of my credit. People who aren't conscious are hanging up and just don't care," says Ashley. "It takes a hustler. I try to convince them to pay more than the total amount. You have to go above and beyond to get them to pay their bills," says Ashley

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The Strange ONe

I would have to agree that it is really the debtors who have stolen the money and I think card companies should have the right to get the money back. I also think some people have a very screwed up perception of what a debt collector is, I happen to enjoy my job because it gives me the ability to help people. I work for a company who is amazing about working with people with fees, in hardship scenarios, and also by breaking payments down. We have more departments for specialty assistance than what we have for regular collecting. Most people just yell at a collector and hang-up, but the fact is that most collectors will do what is necessary to get you to pay, and if that means taking less, then they will do it! My company scores half on how much you collect, but also grades the other half on QUALITY which includes doing the RIGHT thing for the customer, even if that means not taking a payment.

January 26 2014 at 2:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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June 11 2013 at 1:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

OK, really the debt collector employees are just doing their job. Where the trouble lays is with THE BANKS as credit card issurers. They are responsiable partly for this countrys meltdown. Absolute GREED. Really do you think that its helpful to have a 35 dollar late fee and overlimit fee. This has happened to me. I missed one fifty dollar min payment and the very next month my Min Payment... was 300.00. Yes, you heard me right just in late fees and overlimit fees and god only knows what else. So, to the Debt Collectors who say us dead beats should pay our LOAN SHARKS... who are causing people to default every day just to get those outrageous penalties then I say bull !! So, what happens when you call this bank and tell them you cant pay one month? They tell you to go ahead and skip that month but you will still incure late fees and overlimit fees. So, back to the three hundred dollars, if you dont pay that up ... then your snowballing right for bankrupcy cause there is no way you will ever catch up... Skyrocketing overlimit fees, late fees and triple increases in the Min amount do from what it use to be, has killed the self respect of decent human beings who where more honest than the system and tryed to keep up. NOW along comes the JUNK DEBT BUYERS... VALTURES who pray on the already mortally wounded. Your account has been sold three times, at pennys on the dollar and they pick up when the BANK GIVES UP. There should be laws in place in every state that PROHIBIT THE SALE OF CREDIT CARD ACCOUNTS TO JUNK DEBT BUYERS. Write your congressman or woman, this should be illegal. If the BANKS dont want to take the time to collect their own debt themselves and they charge you off... that is where it should end. Not dragging on for years with these idiots kicking you at every turn.. How do you know your account is with a JUNK DEBT BUYER... When you owe say 2,000.00 on an account an they say they will settle for 600.00 cause they probley didnt even pay that much for your account. SO YES, I Sympothise with the debt collector person employed by the Vultures, because they are being treated just as badly as the person they are trying to collect from.
Lets face it, you are just being USED because when they are done with you... you will be discarded and left without a thought. Meet your monthly or get out... plain and simple... an if your a kind hearted person they will eat you alive, because its not about NICE, its only about MONEY..!!!

May 16 2010 at 12:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Abdur-Rahim Khalil

Debt Collectors are no more than legalized gangsters who are unscrupulous liars and will go through any lengths to get the money. I have had them threaten to take me to court. In fact, they have called me and tried to convince me that I had a court date. One called and said he was the FBI.

April 19 2010 at 7:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gene hart

Afew years ago I was being harrassed by a bill collector over bills a friend ran up on her dead mothers credit card while staying at my house. Collectors are required to give you their name and the address of where they work if asked. Of course the collector has an un-listed home phone. I had a friend in the phone company get me the mans home number. I called him at his home in San Antonio, identified myself and told him I would be at his door if I heard from him again. He never called aqain and this still makes me smile after 15 years.

April 19 2010 at 3:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
joe regular

Good insight sorely needed. However, Ashley's quota raises serious questions: What kind of markup is happening to this outstanding debt? What kind of terms and conditions are available for repayment?
Why is a restrictive script necessary, when a caller is walking into a potentially volatile verabal exchange? - one of a nature which the average debtor will respond to negatively because, in the state they're in, the last thing they want to hear is robotive non-human responses. If their debt is all that important to the caller, why wouldn't they want to hang on the line and listen to ten minutes worth of painful personal financial history regarding the debtor's realities?
These questions, and many more like them, I believe are pertinent to the issue.
Years ago I cleared a large chunk of personal debt because I was treated like a human being, not a profit opportunity for some business. The results were far more constructive. The end result was a winning scenario for all concerned.

An employee like Ashley is, in a weird way, just as exploited as the victims of predatory lending. I can commend her for the obvious values she brings to her job, and how she attempts to overcome the reality of her workplace - which still sounds like a boiler-room sweatshop, to me.
Her clients are a cross-section of the collateral damage of credit. No two stories are alike - yet her employers want to morph them into one variable. The sad thing is that their business model works, otherwise they wouldn't do it.
I'd love to see legistlation in place that forced them to work harder for their having to humanize their operations. Debt is a reality.
The debtor is a human being, not a statistic.

January 11 2010 at 2:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Ya know... all we collectors are doing is trying to get what is rightfully owed to our clients in the first place. If you buy a car and don't pay for it, who is the thief? Me or you? I understand that times are tough and that shit happens, but things still cost money. And what are people supposed to do? Just forget that you owe the money? And we don't always know when we call you that you've just lost your job or contracted cancer or whatnot... That is what the call is for, to get that facts and see what it is we can do to help you and help our clients at the same time. It hurts you to be in debt(your credit), it hurts our clients because they aren't getting paid, and it hurts our economy for obvious reasons. We are simply doing our job and there is no reason to get angry or vulgar with us. I'm more than willing to work with anybody so long as they would like to be civil back to me. The ones that want to hang up on me, or cuss me out are the ones that lose... enjoy your credit rating...

October 23 2009 at 9:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

you must be very screwed up to try and make money off of others misfortune. i believe those types of people get cancer and other killing diseases. you cannot be so sick without getting sick yourself. i see those types of people burning in hell for all eternity.
it is different when someone came down with cancer or something like that..BUT most ppl didn't..

The worst are the senior citizens who are 70+ tell you they are on SSI but they just opened the card 3 years ago and they were on SSI when they opened the card. And now owe $15K what the excuse now?

Enjoy paying higher interest rates for ppl that don't pay there bills. I don;t agree with the terms and conditions of ccd's so I never got a CCD so I don't have to pay interest. BUT YOU DID.

The real thieves are politicians anyway.

September 08 2009 at 7:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"Ashley tells the story of a phone call to an unemployed woman whose husband had also lost his job. When Ashley asked how much could be paid toward the sum owed, the woman replied, "Nothing. My husband and I don't have any money. I can't get welfare because I'm white and not a minority. Ashley says she tries hard to push her emotions aside when dealing with such offensive clientele."

How is this offensive when it's true???
just curious

September 08 2009 at 7:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to amanda's comment

um that is not true.. any one can get walfare if they do not have any income coming in.. If she does not qualify for government assistance its because ahe has income for somewhere that she is not letting anyone know about.. (a job). i have been on both ends.. a collector and the one in debt.. i have came upp with everyexcuse to not pay a bill. but my job is to get the ones who dont pay.. its my job to do so.. at work is one way.. im paied to collect.. so that i can pay my debt.. but im nasty when i dont want topay.. minority is bull ****.. minority makes money.. and there are alot of white people on welfare.. check it out. do your research..

July 31 2013 at 3:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Here is a fun idea. Pay for the things you buy. People complain about debt collectors, but the fact is, the people they are calling have, in effect, stolen money from someone else. If you want to know why the economy is in such bad shape, it is partly due to the collapse of the credit system... Hi. PAY YOUR BILL. If someone is calling you constantly and you're crying about the fact that it's dinner your bill. Guess what, they won't call you if you don't owe someone money. And complaining about all the fees and the interest rate...guess had to sign the contract to get the card and therefore you agreed to all of those charges, fees, and practices. If you think its "unfair" then try reading the thing before you start buying things you can't afford to pay for. Everyone goes through hard times, but you have to grow up and take responsibility for your actions. Enough is enough. I have been on both sides of that phone call, and I can say with absolute clarity: PAY YOUR BILLS.

September 08 2009 at 7:42 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to hbear's comment

Folks, you do realize that the majority of bad debt is due to medical expenses don't you? Sure, many folks have health insurance, and most patients only pay a fraction of the total bill as the insurance covers the rest. Or at least that's what we, as the insured, are led to believe.

However, all hospitals have what is known as a "charge master". It's the listing of all prices for all medical procedures that they do. It indicates what an insurance company will pay, and how much mark up the facility expects to get from them.

The insurance agencies will usually pay 100% for items used and the treatment costs but the charge master will also have the profit markup. This is done to ensure that they get the full value of the treatment from the insurance company in the event that they have to write it off for lack of payment.

However, in the event that they do have to write off the remaining balance, is turn it over to a collections company for pennies on the dollar. They already have their money and will get the tax break for the write off. They're free and clear and paid in full already for their service costs by the insurance company. The profit that they would have gotten will be obtained via tax breaks.

So, as a consumer, your insurance has paid the hospital what is owed as dictated by the federal guidelines for medical billing, but you've now got a ding on your credit report, have collections calling you, while the hospital can just sit and laugh it up.

You can easily verify this by contacting any local hospitals billing department and ask them what it would cost to have your tonsils removed, or any other treatment and then call other hospitals and ask them for the same price. The base price that they can charge is governed by Medicare. Only recently have facilities started to post this information publicly. Yet, it's this reason that medical costs are through the roof. They're not consistant. And they result in collections for folks that simply can't afford to pay them.

Economy is bad, health insurance rates have sky rocketed, and most everyone here assumes that it's always people trying to get something for nothing. Don't generalize all bad debt as dead beats, don't assume that since you are 70 years old, and you made your money during a totally different economical time line, that you could afford to feed a family of 4, have only one income provider, one car to pay for, use a wood furnace for heat, that those rules can apply to this century.

September 10 2009 at 10:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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