Everyone has that friend, or family member, who owes them money and hasn’t paid it back for months. Or years.
This isn’t the friend that you have a forever tab with, where you go back and forth “owing” each other $40. This is for the friend who borrowed a month’s worth of rent money and has gone MIA.
Sure, you can cut your losses and consider it an expensive life lesson. Conventional wisdom suggests you shouldn’t lend anything to a friend that you’re not willing to kiss goodbye, at least not without ruining the relationship. But you could probably use that money right about now, and according to experts, if you’re willing to put in some time and effort, you can greatly increase your chances of getting repaid in this lifetime.
Locate the target
Alex Hayes is a 28-year-old bounty hunter in Georgia. Her job is to find people who owe money, who don’t want to be found. She also runs a private investigation business with her boyfriend. According to her, the first thing you need to do is track down the friend who is avoiding or ghosting you.
“In 90 percent of my cases where I’m trying to locate someone, I start with a look at their social media. See if they have more than one account, maybe even under another name.
Basic Google searches are helpful too. People put a lot of information about themselves online—more than they realize,” she said.
This next step may seem obvious, but talking to friends and family who are close to them can help you figure out where they are and what their financial situation is like. You may have to travel to get access to people who are “in their orbit,” according to Hayes. “When we work in the field, the best kind of information is human intel. Someone who has firsthand knowledge,” said Hayes. Understanding their schedule is very helpful.
Don’t spook them
Once you figure out where they are, or likely to be, your strategy for approaching them will dictate how successful you are in this mission. A private meeting usually works best.
“Don't show up in a setting where you might embarrass the person and make them defensive. The issue is between you and them. Don't involve other people,” suggests Hayes. It may be tempting to try a tough approach, but that won’t necessarily get you the results you want.
She says the best approach is a calm and rational one. “Treat it like a business deal, don’t personalize it. That’s hard because these situations can feel personal and emotional.” This kind of no-nonsense approach is disarming—which, in her line of work, is literally a life saver.
Know when to abort the mission
Even if you follow all of these steps, you still might not get your buddy to pay you. You may get more promises. Things can even get awkward—people aren’t rational when it comes to money matters. Hayes suggests pulling up stakes if that’s the case.
“If they refuse to pay you back at that point, get out of there! Don't stick around, the longer you're on scene, it's more likely things will go downhill,” she said. “We refer to this as ‘time on target’ and more time on target is bad.”
According to Hayes, the longer you engage, the greater the likelihood that things are going to get hostile. “Ultimately, there are a lot of ways that this kind of a confrontation can go very badly, so take the softest approach possible,” she said. “Whatever the amount of money is, it's not worth getting the cops called over!”
Go after them in court
This last option is your nuclear option and really only worth it if you’re owed a lot of money and the steps above haven’t worked.
“Your best recourse, if they’re not communicating with you, is to pursue a legal claim in small claims court. Try to get a legal judgement against them and collect on it. But that can be difficult and sometimes it can cost you more to try and get the money back,” said Hayes.
The maximum amount you can go after someone for in small claims court in Canada ranges between $16,000 and $50,000, depending on the province (Ontario’s current limit is $25,000 but increasing to $35,000 on January 1). In the U.S., the maximum depends on where you live and according to Hayes generally ranges between US$5,000 and $25,000. You’ll have to pay fees and prove that they owe you money via a contract or some sort of communications trail. There’s also a time limit on this, so if years have gone by, you may not even have this option.
Most experts don’t recommend going this route unless you’re owed at least a few hundred dollars. When you factor in the amount of effort and potential time off work to attend the hearing, it’s probably not worth the hassle unless you’re owed a few thousand.
Save the friendship
Rubina Ahmed-Haq is a personal finance expert and the brains behind the Always Save Money platform. If the bounty hunter approach doesn’t work, and the amount you’re owed is less than several thousand dollars, she has some ideas that can help you keep the friendship.
Creating a sense of urgency, with a specific timeline, might be just the nudge that your buddy needs. “Say something like, ‘I’m going on holiday in a month so can you get that money to me because I need that extra cash,’” she said.
According to Ahmed-Haq, you want to make them feel like their helping you out, even though that’s not actually what’s happening. Let them know that you need that money. Too often, friends who think you’re doing OK financially might just “keep forgetting” to pay you.
“If you feel like you’re begging them for the money, you look greedy.” She suggests getting them to empathize with you instead. “Tell them it’s hard for you to manage your money. Let them know you’re tight for cash.”
Another strategy, that she has used successfully on her sibling, is to get them to buy something for you that is roughly worth what you lent. “I’ve asked my brother who owed me money to pick up a case of beer for a party. He was happy to do it,” she said. You can keep using this technique until you feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
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