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 CALL CAME on a Saturday morning, 8:30 a.m. Tara Burkholder remembers the time so precisely because the call woke her from a dead sleep. The lady on the other end of the line was from a company called NCO Financial, Tara says. The lady didn’t give her name. No pleasantries, no how ya doin’. Straight to business. She wanted Burkholder to pay back a $9,000 educational loan that her husband, Ryan, had taken out a few years earlier. “I told her, I’ve got $92 in my checking account, two inches of milk in the fridge,” Tara recalls. “It just ain’t possible.”
This was back in April. Times were getting tough. Tara, then 30, had no income. She was a student teacher in Georgia, working for free in hopes of landing a full-time teaching job. Her husband was a lawyer in civilian life, but at that moment he was half a world away, deployed in the Iraq war, helping Iraqi judges restore order in a violent region east of Baghdad. Until he came back home, to the Fort Benning Army base, Tara had to watch her budget carefully — and food for her daughter came first, before any loan repayments. Tara explained all of this to the NCO lady, but the NCO lady was unsympathetic, Tara says. The NCO lady told Tara it was time for her to give up on her dream of being a teacher, and get a paying job immediately: “Honey, sometimes we have to do things that we need to do.” The lady also told Tara that NCO had contacted her husband’s commanding officer in Iraq, and that if she didn’t pay back the loan, her husband would be dishonorably discharged from the Army.
NCO, which is headquartered in Horsham, is, like the other third-party debt-collection companies that comprise a $17.5 billion industry in the United States, relentless. I know from personal experience. Last fall, I started getting these weird phone calls. The voices were prerecorded, and they weren’t looking for me. They were looking for this other guy. I figured I must have inherited this other guy’s old phone number, and that eventually the robo-callers would get a clue and stop calling me. But they didn’t. The calls kept coming, three or four a week for six months from a lot of different debt-collection companies that didn’t ID themselves as debt collectors, which is illegal.