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

THE PROBLEM WITH Barrist’s bad-apple defense — “From time to time our people do things wrong, and those people get caught” — is that Tara Burkholder’s story is far from unique. Spend an afternoon surfing the PACER database of federal lawsuits, and you can find claims that make Burkholder’s experience seem like a tongue kiss. A California woman named Chanada Harmon says that in April 2005, she got a call from an NCO collector who wanted her to pay up on a Capital One account she owed money on. According to allegations in a federal complaint filed by Harmon, which were denied by NCO, she told the NCO collector she had already made arrangements to pay the bill. At that point, the collector allegedly asked to talk to Harmon’s mother, so he could “tell her what a horrible job she did” in raising a “low-life” piece of “white trailer trash.”
“At all times material and relevant hereto,” reads the complaint, “the Plaintiff is an African-American.” NCO settled the case for an undisclosed sum.
The more you read about the industry, the more it seems like the Mean Debt Collector is the norm and not the exception. This was certainly the impression I got from a woman I’ll call “Debbie,” who worked for seven years as a collector with several debt-collection agencies (not NCO).
Her first two weeks on the job, same as NCO’s debt collectors, Debbie was trained to follow the FDCPA. In her third week, she learned to forget it. Debbie made $15 an hour plus 20 percent of any checks she brought in beyond her $15,000 monthly goal. If she didn’t hit her goal, her bosses were “on my ass,” and she couldn’t hit her goal unless she broke the law. Consumers wouldn’t talk to her if she identified herself up front as a debt collector, as required by the FDCPA. So she lied. She’d say she was calling from an attorney’s office. Or the Attorney General’s office. Or she’d say there was an emergency with a family member, please call us back. If she managed to get the debtor on the phone, she pummeled him with threats. She was mean: “You have to be mean to collect. You have to tell them you’re going to take their kids and their house and ruin their life.” She even divulged debtors’ finances to third parties: “Your friend, he owes $2,300 on his Visa card, you wanna have him call me back?” That’s illegal. “But we did it every day,” Debbie said. “The whole industry does it.”
Barrist’s trump card in the argument that NCO is different is volume. Pure numbers. It may be true that consumers “in the thousands” complain about NCO every year, but this is to be expected (“We’re in a business where we’re having difficult conversations with consumers”), and anyway, if you look at the ratio of complaints to those 500 million annual touches, it’s actually pretty low. As for the complaints themselves, the ones sent to government regulators or to NCO’s special hot line, “Every one of them is read and acted upon,” Barrist said.