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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