I arrive at work with a long list of people to call, knowing that if all goes well, I may call 125 people today.
Today, I’ll hear stories of businesses gone sour, failed marriages and terrible illnesses.
I’ll hear outright lies: “The check’s in the mail,” or “The stamp fell off.”
And I’ll hear children lie for their parents: “He’s not here.”
But that’s all part of my job as a debt collector.
Some people think of my profession as the lowest of the low, but I see it another way. I’m a problem-solver and I help people who are in trouble solve their problems. If I do my job well, my clients are happy, my company is happy and so am I.
I happen to work for an auto finance company, so my job is to keep people from having their cars, trucks and SUV’s repossessed.
The accounts that are assigned to me are my responsibility, and it’s one I take seriously.
I know that at any time I can decide to turn a loan over for repossession. That’s something I’d like to avoid, though, because a repossession automatically costs my company somewhere around $4,000. Since the client will ultimately be responsible for that debt, it will be just more difficult to try and collect from a customer who won’t even have a car any longer.
So my strategy is to work with customers to bring their loan up-to-date. I might be able to let them make an interest-only payment and move the principal to the end of the loan. I might be able to wait for a payment for a few more days, or even a week or so, depending on how far past due the account is, if they guarantee it will come. In fact, I have a variety of tools in my arsenal and I’m ready to pull out the one that best fits the situation.
There’s one thing, though, that makes my job miserable: lies. I’ve heard every one ever invented — and more than once.
I know right off the bat when someone isn’t telling the truth and that automatically sends up red flags. I simply can’t work as easily with someone who isn’t being honest and truthful as I can with someone who is.
No matter how many times it happens, I can’t help but be continually surprised by the fact that someone will tell repeated lies when I have their account history as evidence to the contrary on the computer screen right there in front of me.
Like the people I talk to every day, I have my own pressures. I have a mortgage to pay, car payments to make and kids to feed. I didn’t take this job to beat up on people or because I take a perverse pleasure in hearing people’s problems. I worked my way into this job and it’s a good one for me.
Just like anyone, I have bad days and good days, but I pride myself on dealing with my clients in a professional way.
Time to start calling.
My first call is a young girl who is in her twenties. I couldn’t find her from the phone number and address I had on file, so I have to do some investigating — “skip tracing” is what we call it.
I pull her credit report and, even with all my experience in this field, am still shocked to see how much debt she has at such a young age.
When I finally track her down, I try to broach the subject without going out of the parameters of my job: “I can’t discuss your credit report with you, but I did access it to find you and it looks like you have quite a bit of credit.” She breaks down in tears, not knowing what she should do.
That’s another exasperating aspect of the job — the fact that I can’t spend the kind of time I’d like helping a client find answers to mounting financial problems. I wish I could sit down with this young woman and go over her finances with a fine-tooth comb. But that’s not my job.
After working out a deferment on this month’s payment, I move on to the next name on my list.
Sometimes working as a debt collector feels like working in an emergency room. There are a lot of people to help, and I’m working triage, just trying to patch up the holes. I can only hope they get the help they need after they talk with me. I’m often glad to hear when our clients are getting professional help, because I know they’ll come out ahead if they stick with the program.
My second call is to a woman whose husband is dying of cancer and has let her bills fall behind. I truly can empathize because I lost a loved one to a terminal illness just a couple of years ago. But I have to gently remind her that life does, and will, go on for her. I tell her that if she lets her financial obligations fall behind now, she’ll have credit troubles that will haunt her for many years. She arranges a payment on the phone and I move on to the next call.
A real frustration of the job is the number of people who try to hide when times get tough. I know that I can help them save their account if they will work with me. But more people than you’d like to count think that if they ignore me, I’ll somehow go away. I’m responsible for their account, however, and I’ll keep working it until it’s settled — one way or the other.
I also know that if I can work with them now, when they’re not too far behind, it’s much better for them. Once someone hasn’t made a payment on an account for 30 to 60 days, any lender is going to consider it a pretty serious matter. Although lenders all have their own policies, I know that some of them will start foreclosing, repossessing or charging off accounts at anywhere from 45 to 90 days. And with some lenders, that means the account will be sold to an outside collection agency.
That’s where the “tough guys” can come in. While my company has trained me to always work within the guidelines of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, I know there are collection companies that operate on the fringes of the law.
I’ve heard some real horror stories from clients about the tactics other collectors have used to try to pressure them into payment. Some of those collectors work in boiler rooms, are paid on commission or have constant pressure on them to bring in payments.
One thing I know for sure is that every debt collector is different. If you put 20 collectors on the same account, you’ll get 20 different ways to deal with it. Unfortunately, I find that people tend to paint collectors with the same brush. Once they’ve had a bad experience with one, they don’t want to talk with any of them.
When clients tell me about their frustrations with a collector at another lender, I encourage them to speak to a supervisor or someone else.
I find it hardest to work with someone when they fall behind early on in their loan. If they’re late several times, or more than 30 days, in their first year of payments, that’s a real warning sign.
If someone’s more than halfway through the loan, though and they are running into trouble, I’ll have more flexibility to help them. I sometimes get clients who can’t make their payments on a five, six or even seven-year car loan and I know they are in deep trouble.
They are so far “upside down” on the loan that it will be a long time before they can right themselves.
When people ask me why I do what I do, I suggest they look at it this way. What would happen if people could make their loan payments any old time they felt like it? Lenders wouldn’t get their money back, they’d stop making loans and the whole system would collapse.
I point to the depression of the 1930’s, which was caused, in part, by people’s lack of faith in the banking system.
My job is an important one because it helps keep our credit system going.
But today, I don’t have time to reflect on the bigger picture. I have a job to do.
I know that if I’m successful, I will help a lot of people through tough times today. Sometimes they even thank me for it.