The Economy: Don’t Pick Up the Phone

The tanking economy isn’t exactly your fault, but America’s biggest debt-collection company — headquartered in Horsham — will still hunt you down

BARRIST GAVE ME a tour of NCO’s modern headquarters, a glimpse of the literal machine the company has become. Barrist is a big, broad-chested guy, with a salt-and-pepper beard and incongruous glasses. His voice is deep and Philly-accented. In NCO’s mailroom a truck-size machine was sorting envelopes, and a scanner zapped checks that had just come in that day, tiny personal checks — $50 whhhzzz beeep, $20 whhhzzzz brrreeep, $11.85 whzzzzz … something like a million payments every month. “It’s incredibly complicated,” Barrist said.
The business used to be more personal, more one-to-one, back in the days when Chuck Piola was driving around Center City in a Mercedes-Benz he called “The Beast,” pumping himself up by listening to Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” parking the Beast in front of random skyscrapers on a whim and striding inside and selling them blind on the virtues of NCO. The story of NCO became a classic  fable of American capitalism: the story of men who had come from nothing, and were taking risks in service of a bold idea, and were working their asses off to make it happen, and were winning. Back then, most of NCO’s business came from doctors and hospitals, and most of the checks that came in were from people who either wouldn’t or couldn’t pay their medical bills. But in 1993, Hillary Clinton tried to create a national health-care program, and Barrist worried that NCO could go bust if she succeeded. So he diversified. He bought lots of little debt-collection companies that specialized in other kinds of debt — credit-card debt, student-loan debt. He also began to experiment with “debt buying”; a bank might package thousands of its old debts together and sell them for 40 cents on the dollar to a company like NCO, which might turn around and sell the debts for 20 cents on the dollar to another debt collector. If this goes on for years and years, the debt can become “zombie debt,” unmoored from the act of its creation (i.e., your trip to  Wal-Mart to buy that plasma TV), virtually unbillable, virtually impossible to collect.
Which brings us to “The Vault.” The Vault is the pulsing heart of NCO. It’s a room full of long rows of funereal gray disk arrays containing 20 terabytes of Social Security numbers and credit reports — all of it encrypted, Apocalypse-proof. Collecting debt in 2008 is about statistics, computers, robots. “Motion, smoke, heat and water detection,” Barrist told me, and pointed to the ceiling: “FM-200 fire suppression.” It really is just a numbers game now. NCO generates 500 million “consumer touches” every year. Five hundred million phone calls, letters, e-mails. This is why Barrist has several Ph.D. mathematicians at NCO headquarters, writing algorithms that engorge this massive universe of information — info from the Post Office, from phone books, from consumer credit reports, from the private records of NCO’s clients, from pricey demographic data — and spit out patterns. The patterns help NCO figure out how best to contact you, how best to get the cash in your bank account from one place to another place, so that it can go to another place, and another place, and another place. In here are some of the crucial, hidden gears of the consumer economy. This place is the Death Star, basically. And it’s boring. By design. It emits a low, pleasant hum.
When I asked Barrist about Tara Burkholder, the Army wife, he said, “I don’t know this woman, and I am not going to research any consumer’s account with you.” He cited Burkholder’s privacy rights. “Could it have happened? Anything can happen … but it doesn’t really sound like a story that could have happened in a call center that’s pretty carefully monitored.”