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.

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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.