June/July 2009 – Debt Collectors: bad cop, good cop

Debt collectors: bad cop, good cop all in one

There's a sign in Jim Coy's otherwise bland office that reads: "God's last name is not damn."

People come in and they're upset, and they use profanities," Coy said. "So we decided to put the sign up." Debt collection might be stressful in these economic times, but it doesn't have to be ugly.

Coy and his brother Cliff, co-owners of Elite Financial Services Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., have been collecting debt for more than two decades, starting the business with their father.

Over the last 23 years they've recovered money from dishwashers, dentists, lawyers, doctors, and even professional athletes. And they know how most people think of them- heartless bloodsuckers who will chase you down a dark alley to get their money.

The reality is far less draconian. Still, debt collectors are held in almost universally low regard. Just hearing the word "debt collector" causes unemployed Marcee Stewart to frown.

"I can't really tell you what I think, because a lady doesn't use those kinds of words," she said. "Let's just say I don't like them."

She's not alone. The federal Trade Commission says grievances against collectors topped its complaint list for the last three years. More debt equals more debt collectors. Ten years ago there were 383,000 debt collectors, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. Now there are more than 430,000.

But while debt is rising a slumping economy doesn't necessarily mean a windfall for collectors. "A common misconception is that debt collectors must be doing great during tough economic times," said John Nemo, spokesman for the American Collectors Association in Minneapolis.

While more debt is being sent to collection, it's harder to collect from cash-strapped people who use what little money they have for essentials like gas and groceries. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, the Coys said.

"You just can't call people up, browbeat them and drop an anvil on their head and think everybody's going to respond to that," Cliff Coy said.

Take Marcee Stewart for, example. "I had a guy call me and basically just yell at me for five minutes," said Stewart, who has been looking for a job since November.

Debtors, too, have crossed the line. Nationally, Nemo said, there have been reports of debtors who followed collectors home, published pictures of their houses and gave out their addresses and phone numbers on the Internet. They've even been physically abusive.

The Coys have been yelled at, cursed and hung up on. But they haven't experienced much worse.

It's all in how you treat people, they say. The brothers train their staff of five to walk a fine line. One the one hand, they must be polite respectful and empathetic. The 1977 Fair Debt Collections Practice Act in the U.S. forbids abusive, deceptive or unfair tactics.

On the other hand, they must be aggressive, single-minded and blunt. They have one job: Get the money.

Our approach is, "You owe our client the money, we want it, and we want it all," Cliff Coy said.

"I'm not going to apologize for what I do," Cliff said. "Everybody ought to pay who they owe."

From the Bible, Galatians VI "King James Version:
“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
…Some food for thought.