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My Time as a Professional Debt Collector Made Me Lose Faith in Humanity

It's hard to be depressed yourself when you're confronted with the most depressing stuff imaginable.

Oliver Lee Bateman

Image via Wellcome Library.

I hit rock bottom in a windowless, poorly ventilated cubicle farm on the outskirts of Kalispell, Montana. Once upon a time, I had cooked and washed dishes at a Golden Corral. From there, I had crashed and burnt as the manager of an Abercrombie & Fitch. Now here I was, 22 years old and collecting debt at a strip mall-based law firm headed up by one absentee lawyer and a troika of straight-up, no-fucking-shit Chicago gangsters.

I didn't expect things to turn out like this. I had moved to Montana to become a schoolteacher, a park ranger, a Border Patrol officer, an N. Scott Momaday-style writer of frontier literature... anything but what I had been in North Carolina, which was clinically depressed. But Kalispell, in the throes of an economic depression every bit as thick as my DSM-IV depression, contained no balm in Gilead which would make this wounded ex-Tar Heel whole.

It did, however, contain a bunch of bottom-of-the-barrel jobs for ex-cons, anti-government militiamen, ski bums, and other ne'er-do-wells on their last legs. From handyman to janitor and back again, the "gateway to Glacier National Park" had it all. It also served as the home base for a large collection agency, which had posted a full-page "OPEN HOUSE: ASSOCIATES NEEDED, COMPETITIVE SALARY AND BONUS" advertisement in the same local newspaper that had refused to throw any low-paying stringer work my way. So, being of cobwebbed mind and nearly empty pocketbook, I showed up for the collection agency's open house, got hired on the spot, and settled into a ten-month run that left me convinced that nearly every finance company in the world is out to fuck you right the fuck over.

Before we go any further, let me explain what this gig entailed. The collection agency billed itself as "Law Firm & Associates" because they were paying the aforementioned scumbag attorney to hang his shingle outside the place. The rest of us, the "associates," sat in front of six-year-old Compaq computers and attempted to collect stale, charged-off accounts purchased for pennies on the dollar from Chase Bank, Household Bank, American Express, and other original creditors. There was a complicated formula for how much each dollar of this debt cost, and how much of it you, the "associate," were expected to recover, and if you exceeded that number, you received a bonus. If you didn't, you were gone.

We called ourselves "associates" because a lofty title like that was supposed to coerce the debtors, who we officially referred to as "deadbeats" or "pieces of shit," into paying old debts that were better left unaddressed. Although I was not yet an attorney, the "associate" label was expected to add gravitas to my firm demand for their money. If this didn't work and a canny debtor realized I was just some 22-year-old cold-calling them, I'd give vague replies such as, "Well, I haven't passed the bar in Montana yet," or, "I am an associate of this law firm." As bullshitty as that might have been, such statements didn't seem to run afoul of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)—federal legislation passed during the Carter administration to govern the activities of third-party debt collectors—so the other "associates" and I kept making them. It was unconscionable, but then again, everything I was doing there was unconscionable.

There were two days of "training." This primarily consisted of learning how to turn on the computers while being reminded that browsing the internet on company time was verboten unless you were skiptracing debtors. After that, I was led to a terminal, instructed to sit down, and told that I was expected to spend the next ten hours "smiling and dialing" the "pieces of shit" whose names appeared in my collection file. The supervisor, an aging former adult film star and the son of one of those straight-up, no-fucking-shit Chicago gangsters who ran the place, then told me he wanted to arm-wrestle me. To wit:

"You're a big motherfucker," he said, grabbing my bicep. "A big boy."

"Uh, sure," I said.

"How big are these guns?"

"I don't know."

"When I was out in LA doing films and movies, my guns were 19 inches but I didn't have that sweet peak like yours do, that nice Schwarzenegger peak. Ever measure them?"

"I don't have a clue how big they are."

"It's OK, we'll arm-wrestle. I'll kick your ass. You take a smoke break, we'll arm-wrestle, and I'll kick your ass."

"I don't smoke."

"I'll kick your ass anyway, you'll see. Just wait."

After that, he walked outside to smoke a cigarette, which was how he spent much of his day, returning from these breaks only to "close the deal" on a debtor who seemed to be wavering and thus willing to open the checkbook. My first call, like the majority of my calls, was nothing special:

Me: "Hello, is this Mr. Debtor?"

D: "Who is calling?"

Me: "May I speak to Mr. Debtor?"

D: "What is this about?"

Me: "Is this Mr. Debtor?"

D: "Yes, that's me. What is this about?"

Me (clearing my throat): "Well, Mr. Debtor, I'm an associate at Law Firm & Associates calling with regard to your Household Bank Visa account, on which you owe $4,500.33. Please note that this is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose..."

D: "Man, fuck you."

[Click.]

Related: The Real Wolf of Wall Street

My cubicle-mate, however, was something special: a former San Francisco detective turned attorney turned alcoholic turned Jesus freak turned debt collector turned relapsed alcoholic turned fired debt collector Round II turned Jesus freak Round II turned debt collector Round III. In addition to mercilessly battering the "deadbeats" and "pieces of shit" whose debts Law Firm & Associates now owned, he kept up a stream-of-consciousness conversation, ostensibly in the hopes of mentoring me as I proceeded down the haphazard highway to true enlightenment.

"So you want to be a writer, hmm, well I know a guy at General Mills, hmm, have you thought about writing the copy on the backs of cereal boxes, hmm, I mean it's something, hmm, and I can call him, hmm, we used to go flying a lot back when I had my plane, hmm, I miss those days, hmm, I was flying all the time then, hmm, sometimes he and I would go to Bakersfield or out to Sacramento, hmm, just a short hop, hmm, but I could call him, hmm, you know, hmm, put in a word, hmm, and maybe it's a start, hmm, I followed my dreams and the Lord showed me the way, hmm, I wasn't just a detective, hmm, no, I went to law school at night, hmm, and I was a lawyer, hmm, it was my dream, hmm, and no, hmm, I'm not doing it now, hmm, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, hmm, but I'm telling you follow your dreams, hmm, he who seeks finds and he who knocks will be let in, hmm, and I'm not saying I can do anything there, hmm, he may not even work at General Mills anymore, hmm, but it's a thought, and HELLO IS THIS MR. DEBTOR, hmm?"

Law Firm & Associates gathered the flotsam and jetsam of the capitalist system's wreckage and we sifted through it in search of a gold doubloon or two.

And so he rambled, for hours and hours without end, until it gradually dawned on me that I was in the presence of someone who a millennium earlier might have been regarded as a guru or a holy man. If it were 1004 A.D., I could imagine him leading us in prayer at the top of a cliff right before we all jumped off in an attempt to gain enlightenment. Instead, it was 2004, and he was convincing people to pay him money they didn't have for their debts that didn't matter. Together, this lunatic and I were part of the vast mop-up crew of drone workers who took charged-off debts and tried to squeeze as much value out of them as possible. Law Firm & Associates gathered the flotsam and jetsam of the capitalist system's wreckage and we sifted through it in search of a gold doubloon or two.

Each debtor's file came with contact information (phone number, address, etc.), which was almost always out of date, and credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Within a few weeks, I was reading these forms with an assayer's eye for detail. As much as we wish to believe we're unique and amazing individuals, the details of our financial lives are remarkably prosaic and repetitive. All these "deadbeats" fit one of four profiles:

The Early Failure: A person with a bunch of starter credit cards that have been charged off, a cheap car note that may or may not be current, and perhaps a civil judgment or two that was filed in a small claims court. These debtors usually had no assets of their own, but sometimes had parents or grandparents who could be coerced into settling the account if all involved were sufficiently frightened and deceived about the ramifications of having the debt placed with a "law firm" instead of a "collection agency." (There was no real difference besides the name, since we never sued anyone.)

The Big Deal: A person with an expensive mortgage, an expensive car note, and vast debts racked up on high-profile cards such as American Express. These debtors were very rare, very good at hiding, but sometimes very capable of making an enormous settlement payment if they happened to be digging out of whatever business failure or divorce had left them in this predicament.

The Victim: A person whose credit report also contained reference to thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills. (I never collected these. That's another story entirely). This person was likely on the way out, a victim of a catastrophic disease, and generally had no desire to pay their debts. Conversations with these debtors were among the most painful I had during my time at Law Firm & Associates.

The Lifelong Debtor: A person who had always been in debt, had perhaps even completed a previous bankruptcy or two, and now had a credit profile that featured a few starter credit cards and other revolving accounts (generally Fingerhut and Rent-A-Center) on which they never made a single payment. These people typically had default judgments from payday lenders and "100 percent approval" stamps from used car dealerships (two shady, parasitical enterprises that also prey on the poor and ill-informed) on their accounts as well. They could quite understandably not be expected to repay debts that no longer mattered to them, given how damaged their credit already was.

As amazing as my cubicle-mate was at haranguing these poor people, he was a lightweight compared to the telephone debt collectors of yore. Our porn star-turned-supervisor bemoaned the changes wrought by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which meant "deadbeats" could no longer be sent postcards informing them they had won contests and needed to call a special toll-free number to receive their reward or, better still, informed their mother had suffered a heart attack and was in the hospital and this was the super secret number they needed to call to receive more "sensitive information." No, we just went around and around ("R&R" or "rnr" in the shorthand we used to when notating debtor files) with these "pieces of shit."

Image via Wellcome Library.

At the beginning of the call, I offered the "firm demand" as mandated by the FDCPA—"This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained would be used for that purpose,"—and then made a request for payment in full. By this point, "payment in full" was a laughable notion, given how engorged that figure was by fees, interest, and other penalties. Law Firm & Associates continued to assess penalties as well, so when I eventually got the debtor on the phone and quoted the kingly sum he now owed, they were likely to be stunned. Ten times out of ten, the debtor told me there was no way the debt could be paid, whereupon I asked for payment in full spread over three or four installments. After that failed, which was almost always the case barring the intervention of a wealthy relative or other white knight, I halted the conversation and transferred the call to a "supervisor," a more experienced collector who would also demand payment in full.

The more experienced collector again went "R&R" with the debtor before offering the same installment plan I had already discussed. The debtor would again demur, and the call would be transferred once more, this time to a "senior supervisory associate," usually my batshit crazy cubicle-mate, who would repeat the process but using bigger words and in a much louder voice. If the debtor remained on the phone for 30 minutes, they won (sort of). The senior supervisory associate would finally offer settlement at 85 percent of the current balance.

But here's where it got even shadier: Even if consumers were sent a certified letter confirming their debt was settled in full with Law Firm & Associates, the remaining debt was sold immediately to another collection agency, one that specialized in collecting high volumes of extremely difficult-to-collect debt. These agencies are staffed primarily by minimum-wage workers at foreign call centers, and use auto-dialers to harass individuals who believe they have already discharged their debt.

It could have been much worse, of course. The FDCPA, by barring most of the absurd practices favored by unscrupulous collectors during the good old days, had spoiled much of the "fun." Its humane dictates included:

  • Don't call people after 9 PM local time or before 8 AM (though this was easy to screw up, since we were in the impressively-named Mountain Time Zone).
  • Don't call them after they've told you to stop calling.
  • Don't continue calling them at work after you've been told by their employer to stop.
  • Don't continue talking to them after they've told you they're represented by an attorney.
  • Don't misrepresent yourself or your employer, which includes telling the debtor that you're actually an attorney (though it was OK to stretch the truth as far as you can go, as noted earlier) or that you might sue them when you don't actually intend to (which led to some pretty tortured sentences about "potentially taking serious action after thorough consideration of your file and initiating the possibility of commencing a lawsuit").

One thing that hadn't changed about the third-party collection industry was the fly-by-night, ad hoc nature of these operations. Law Firm & Associates, which operated for a total of five years, closed suddenly one day in the late 2000s. The attorney vanished, two of the straight-up, no-fucking-shit Chicago gangsters went to jail for embezzlement, and the third launched another collection agency with a similarly meaningless name.

But my end of the line came much earlier. I received a call from a co-worker one morning informing me that all of my effects—a competition-quality hand gripper, a Garfield pin-up, an empty milk jug, and a copy of Jesse "The Body" Ventura's autobiography—had been placed in a cardboard box by the front door of the office. When I arrived to collect them, the former porn-star supervisor was waiting for me, arms crossed over a chest he was puffing out in the hopes of either impressing or intimidating me, likely both.

"Oscar, this job..."

"Oliver," I corrected him.

He handed me the box. "Oliver, this job isn't for you. You're not hitting your bonuses, so we're cutting you loose. Sorry, man. Go find yourself."

Such advice, usually offered by well-meaning imbeciles, is utterly vacuous: wherever I'd be finding myself, it wasn't there, so what did it matter to that asshole? My cubicle-mate, who spewed New Age and fundamentalist Christian mumbo-jumbo in equal measure, was fond of remarking that life was about the journey rather than the destination, which was perhaps closer to the mark. The years have come and gone, and I've been a lawyer and a college professor in that span, but it was this sleazy, third-rate job that taught me who I wasn't. I wasn't the type of person who calls other human beings "pieces of shit" or "deadbeats" just because they told American Express to go pound salt. No, I realized I was someone who cared at least a little bit in a world where, in the words of Langston Hughes, "not enough of us care anywhere."

My agonizing time as a debt collector did have one bright spot, however. After spending ten months wallowing in the misery of others, I'd found it hard to be depressed myself.

Oliver Lee Bateman is on Twitter.