ABOUT THE ONLY company that didn’t break the law in its calls to me was NCO. The NCO robo-dude clearly identified himself as a debt collector. But as I began to dig into NCO, clicking through federal court databases and consumer websites, I found a lot of stories like Tara Burkholder’s. Claims of deception. Allegations that NCO collectors were saying they were calling from law firms, calling people’s co-workers, berating people’s mothers and in-laws, disclosing private information to spouses and kids, breathing heavily into the phone like perverts, threatening to garnish people’s wages and put liens on their homes, taunting them about their inability to afford a lawyer. NCO denies engaging in such tactics, all of which are prohibited by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA. You can’t harass or lie to a consumer to collect a debt, and you can’t apply pressure by disclosing the consumer’s debt to third parties. But it seems to happen all the time. Regulators have slammed NCO; in 2004 it paid a $1.5 million settlement to the Federal Trade Commission, the largest civil penalty in that agency’s history to that point, and in 2006 it paid a $300,000 settlement to the state of Pennsylvania after the Attorney General received 800 complaints about NCO from consumers, some alleging that NCO’s collectors “used obscene or profane language and engaged in conduct to threaten, annoy, abuse, or harass consumers.”
The world headquarters of NCO happens to be in a long, single-story building out in Montgomery County, hidden in plain sight. To look at it, you’d never guess that NCO is, in fact, the largest bill collector in the world — a corporate alpha dog disguised as just another puppy. NCO boasts 30,000 employees, yearly revenues of $1.6 billion, and 120 locations (mostly call centers) in the likes of Antigua, Australia, Barbados, Canada, India, Panama, Puerto Rico and the U.K. It’s the leader of a powerful industry whose highly sophisticated modern incarnation it helped to create. It’s huge. And it’s ours.
Now, as America slouches into a new Great Depression, we’ve got a piece of the action. Now, when the banks fail, and the car companies fail, and even pretty healthy companies find they need to collect on their past-due bills just to make payroll, they’re going to call NCO, and NCO’s going to call you. And whether you like it or not, you’ll have a new friend in Pennsylvania.
Chuck Piola leaned back in a deck chair by his pool. He wore a St. Croix tank top, Nike sandals and gold-rimmed sunglasses. Ruddy flesh spilled from the tank top’s armholes. He lit a cigar. “It’s a cheapo,” he said. “Occidental. But they’re good every day.”