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

THIS WAS ON a sunny afternoon at Iron Horse Farm, a hilly 80-acre tract in Chester County that Piola, 61, bought when he left NCO six years ago. He built his dream house on the top of the hill. It’s a marvel of peach stucco and Douglas-fir lumber, crafted to look like “a manor house in the South of France somewhere,” Piola said. It was built atop a foundation dating back to 1740 — some Revolutionary farmer’s abode. Piola loves that. “Very American, to come here and carve something out.”
Working as a salesman for NCO was Piola’s second career. His first career was teaching. As a young man, Piola used to teach American history to junior high-schoolers. But then his wife gave birth to two children, and Piola got scared he wouldn’t be able to support them on his $10,500 teacher’s salary. So he made the leap into cold-call sales. He read Dress for Success and bought a single midnight-blue suit. He wore it every day. He drove a burgundy 1979 Plymouth Horizon up and down the interstates of the East Coast. In 1986, Piola became the second employee of NCO.
The first employee was the company’s founder, Michael Barrist. Barrist was young. Remarkably so: a CEO at age 25. But he had a powerful idea. He had grown up in Havertown, where his parents ran a small debt-collection company out of their converted garage. Most debt companies were mom-and-pop operations. Barrist dreamed of bringing the industry into the age of computers and databases and offshore call centers. The time was ripe. All over America, people were flashing plastic. It was the dawn of the credit-card era. In 1952, according to a report by the think tank Center for American Progress, American families had less than 40 cents in debt for every dollar of disposable income; basically, for every buck in their wallet they could spend on food or gas or a new TV, they owed 40 cents to stores or banks. Manageable. Reasonable. But by 1990, it was 80 cents in debt for every dollar of disposable income. (By 2007, it was $1.34 in debt for every dollar.) Suddenly, organizations of all kinds — department stores, sports teams, dentists, surgeons, colleges, municipalities, even the federal government — found themselves unable to deal with the flood of consumers who owed them money.
And now here were these nice men from Philadelphia — these businessmen, taking advantage of a shift in the culture — who were more than willing to handle that fraught and nasty business of collecting debts, in exchange for a cut of the action.


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  • Maggie

    SHAME ON ALL THESE DEBT-COLLECTING COMPANIES. Shame on anybody who is so desperate or stupid as to work for them. And shame on the greed-driven credit card companies and others these companies collect for, with the usury rates of interest they charge. Harassing wives and children of people deployed to Iraq and breaking federal law to collect debts. Badgering dying cancer patients for a few dollars. Call after threatening call demanding money, stressing and eventually driving an 86-year-old widow to a stroke. (this actually happened to a lady I know)The list of abuses by debt collectors goes on and on.Small wonder fewer and fewer people worry about defaulting on payments. My children need food before Barrist and Piola need another Mercedes.And by the way if the USA had SINGLE PAYER HEALTH CARE FOR ALL –- real healthcare, not for-profit “insurance” — many if not most of these "debts" wouldn't be owed.

  • MattyMat

    Good story on the "Robo-Collector". I have my own story that involves harrassing debt collectors that has a rare, but happy ending.Back in the day, I used to work as a collector when I was going through college, and saw pretty much exactly what your story describes– unscrupulous behavior in order to collect debt– I even witnessed one collector threaten an old lady that "he will be dropping by" because he knew where she lived. And that worked– to the tune of 5 grand. I also learned the laws that are in place concerning debt collection– more specifically– California law. Fast forward to a couple months ago—I received a phone call from a debt collector that immediately started out with a very aggressive, threatening tone. I had not seen any paperwork on this "alleged" debt– and what the persons (I asked to talk to her supervisor) were doing were trying to get a verbal agreement for payments, which is binding in CA. I asked that they do not call me at this number agai

  • MattyMat

    again. The phone calls never ceased. Harrassment– against the law. I immediately called a debt collection legal service, logged all the phone calls, etc. and just yesterday received a settlement that erased the debt, payed for lawyers fees and put a little money in my pocket.There are laws people– harrassment is AGAINST the law– and you too can get your debt erased by these pathetic, any means nessessary debt collection firms. I know I did– …and to think— if they were only professional about it– I would have paid them. Oh, the irony.

  • Jeannie

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

  • Sharon

    Being on the receiving end of Mr. Barrist's billion dollar industry, I find it hilarious that I'm dismissed as one of those "people who made bad business decisions on how to spend their money." I went from being a single mom living in my car with two small children, to earning a college degree. However, that which was supposed to save me, turned out to be the biggest mistake of my life. After graduation, apparently, the "bad" choices I made included feeding my kids, paying the late fees to get my electricity turned back on & repairs on my 20 year old car so that I could keep my two jobs, in lieu of re-paying my student loan debt. The original $27k in student loans is now $70k (this is the arbitrary amount that NCO is garnishing my 30k a year salary for. So now, I go without eating a few days a week in order to pay my rent. Mr. Barrist has made a fortune since discovering that student loan debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, there is no statute of limitations on colle

  • sharon

    I wasn't done…Mr. Barrist has made a fortune since discovering that student loan debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy and there is no statute of limitations on collecting. Even my social security can be garnished. Conflatulations, Mr. Barrist. You're a rich man. I read that you recently had to cough up four million of your own money to stay afloat. Careful, don't squander the profits from the business you inherited from daddy.

  • Clarence

    Mr. Barrist's employees have violated contract law: demanding payment where there is no evidence of a contract,third party adhesion contracts without disclosure are illegal, nondisclosure of terms of a contract are illegal. Refusal to identify the person demanding payment has no standing in law. Creating money, monetizing a line of credit issued on a persons signature is fraud.

  • Jennifer

    I would not pay NCO a dime directly. They are known not only for fabricating bills, but overinflating them, and not turning money over they may have legitimately collected to their client. These people need to be shut down. As far as the student loan, how about deferrals? NCO never gets a judgement unless the person owing the bill doesn't show up in court.

  • dave

    i got a new number, thought that it was just coincidense that i started to get these calls for a women i don’t know. maybe the lines didn’t get switch over or something, anyways. i informed NCO financial that i wasn’t her, so what do they do, mind you they haven’t addressed themselves at this point. they asked for my personal information to see they had an account for me. i can go on and on, not enough room for the texts.

  • Consumer

    If Congress increased the statutory damages from $1000 to $5000 available under the FDCPA, we wouldn’t have all these problems with debt collection agencies anymore. The federal CFPB has to step up and regulate debt collectors directly. There is no federal oversight.