This year, America’s enormous debt collection industry will make 1,000,000,000 collection calls. They will threaten. Lie. Mislead. Intimidate. Award-winning reporter Fred Williams went “undercover” inside one of its largest firms. Now, he reveals everything he learned—and shows exactly how to fight back and protect your rights.
What got to me later was the answering machine greeting. It invited me to leave a message for Jim, Harley, or Bob—all men’s names. I was looking for a woman named Samantha who owed $3,000 on a major credit card. The phone number I had dialed was the one on the account. As a debt collector, my first task was to call this number and demand payment. So, when the answering machine beeped, I took a breath and started to recite from a script thumbtacked to my cubicle. Halfway into my spiel about some “important business matter” that required Samantha’s attention, Jim picked up.
Trying to get money from strangers is not my usual area of expertise. I had left my job as a newspaper reporter and gone to work at a collection agency to clear up a mystery. After reporting on the collection industry for years, I had heard countless stories about outrageous collection tactics. Debtors—or even people who did not owe money—recounted vicious threats and the lies that collectors used to squeeze them for cash. Their house would be seized, their family would be put on the street, or their children would watch as they were hauled off to jail. Around the nation, complaints like these are flooding into regulatory offices by the tens of thousands. Consumer advocates say the industry, lacking any real restraints, is descending into increasingly harsh—and more profitable—practices. Yet the collection industry claims there are only a few bad apples who don’t represent the mainstream. Much of the griping comes from people who just don’t like to pay their debts, the industry says.