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San Diego's collection agencies feel beleagured

Final notice

He’s a big guy with shoulders out to here and a neck as thick as a tree trunk. He has a square face which looks meaner than it probably is because of the ski mask he wears as a disguise. He uses the name “James Clark,” not his real name. And when he testified two months ago before a U.S. Congressional committee on the abusive practices used against debtors by bill collectors, it_ sounded like something out of The Godfather.

One woman who had repeatedly fudged on a bill received a phone call from Clark. After issuing a stream of threats against her, he asked what shoe size she wore. Told it was “7 1/4,” he said, “I’ll send you a pair in concrete this afternoon.” Her daughter came by with the payment.

Another woman who refused to talk to Clark on the phone or come to the door received a phone call from Clark posing as a policeman. “Get down to the hospital. Your son has been in a car accident and has had both legs cut off.” She rushed down to the hospital, where Clark met her at the door. “She thanked me about her son being all right,” he remembers,“and paid the bill.”

Since Clark is an alias and the congressional committee was careful to keep his true identity and hometown a secret, he could come from anywhere. And if one is to believe all the accusations made recently by the state consumer affairs office, “James Clark” just might be working out of San Diego.

Douglas Faigin, chief of the state Bureau of Collection and Investigation Services, says that nearly one-third of licensed collection agencies in the state violated some regulatory law last year. “It is time for tough, effective action to crack down on collection agencies,” he asserted at a public hearing in San Diego.

Faigin’s office wants to protect the debtor from the James Clarks of the world, who harass and openly threaten people behind in in their bills.

Not surprisingly, collection agencies, of which there are 25 in San Diego, feel their business is over-regulated as it is. James F.. Leitner, spokesman for Consumer Credit Associates of San Diego, a chapter of the International Consumer Credit Association said, ‘There were only 1,490 complaints against the collection agencies.' Considering the vast number of accounts that are assigned this industry and the hostile environment in which it operates, this seems an exemplary record.

“In addition, it is my understanding that these were raw, unverified complaints. I am sure that with any investigation the number of true abuses that were committed were substantially smaller.”

Perhaps. Yet this year Californians will incur over one billion dollars in unpaid debts that, for one reason or another, will be turned over to collection agencies. Of this whopping sum, about a third will be recovered. The rest will go into inactive files or will simply be written off.

With so many people apparently unwilling to pay for what they buy, it’s understandable that bill collection agencies would come under fire. But professional collectors claim that only a small number of people within their business are responsible for the harassment practices that have brought their profession into the public spotlight.

Jack Thompson, who heads Maddock’s Collection Service in San Diego, says further legislation will not curtail unscrupulous collectors since the high-pressure tactics they use-threatening phone calls, impersonating police, and so on—are already illegal.

Thompson, a clean-cut, athletic-looking executive, says the “James Clarks” are few in number, yet account for most of the bad publicity the collection business has received. He also says that the average profile of a person behind in his bills is not what most people believe.

“Only a small percentage of debtors are so-called credit criminals,” according to Thompson. “Most of the time they are careless people; careless not only with money, but careless in their personal lives and in their affairs with other people. Many mean well, but when they get behind in a debt, they would just as soon write it off and start all over again.”

Oftentimes, these people respond to straightforward talk and pay up their account once they realize that they face losing their possessions or risk having their wages garnisheed.

Thompson says it is not unusual to sit down with a debtor, talk over his financial situation, and then suggest ways to help the debtor set up a budget and arrange a payment schedule. If this plan doesn’t work, the collector turns to his trump card-attachment of assets. “The key here, which separates the professional debt collector and those just muddying the water, is finding out what assets a person has,” says Thompson.

If a debtor has valuable assets like a car, or negotiable stocks and bonds, or hefty savings accounts, then these can all be attached and resold to pay back debts.

The trick is to do it legally. Collection agents are not allowed by law to misrepresent themselves to debtors. He must ask permission to inspect the owner’s property for attachable items, and if the debtor has any smarts at all he will simply tell the agent to get lost.

Of course, there are ways to skirt around the laws. An agent, for example, can check through Motor Vehicles to see whether the debtor owns a car and then can go through a finance company or bank, see how much .is owed and whether it’s worth the bother to attach the vehicle and sell it. But there are illegal ways, too.

Agents have been known to pose as policemen, census takers, health inspectors, any official in fact that allows them access to the unsuspecting client’s house.

One local agent gained entrance by pretending to look for his lost dog. He walked up and down the street yelling ostensibly for his dog in a voice loud enough for half the neighborhood to hear. Then he knocked on the debtor’s door, announced his dog was missing, and would it be all right if he used the man’s phone. Once inside, the agent made note of the man’s unlisted telephone number and all the possessions inside the house. He also asked offhandedly where the debtor was working, how much he made, and if his wife worked.

This ploy is tame compared to some used by avaricious collectors. In New Times, a news-entertainment magazine which looks like Time and frequently reads like Rolling Stone, a former unscrupulous agent (now retired) said it was not at all uncommon for his fellow workers to just barge into a house without the owner’s permission. If the owner objects, the agent says, “I’ll be right back with the police.” This is a bluff. Legally, the police have no authority at all to help a collector. Yet the ploy works.

Gimmicks such as these, plus the rough treatment of “slugs” (jargon for average Americans who cannot pay for the things we are supposed to have—television sets, stereo equipment, washing machines, etc.), are not about to raise public sympathy for a business that, even when run legally, is looked upon with suspicion.

Who, after all, likes to be reminded of past debts? It is no fun to open a letter and read, “We at ——— agency have been requested by this creditor to obtain payment of this unpaid account, which is now due, payable in full.” The letter may be carefully written to avoid offending the debtor, but the message is clear: Wouldn’t it be better to pay up now before things get really nasty?

On the other side of the coin is the collector himself, who every working day walks into his office and opens the file cabinet containing hundreds of yellow packets, each one representing a different client. Each presents a profile of the debtor: name, place of work, attachable assets (if any), number of unpaid bills.

Wading through the case load, the agent will inevitably find a worn, heavily creased packet which may date back six years or more. There are not many of these, but even one is too many: for this packet belongs to the professional credit evader, the guy who knows the credit game and has found a way to run up staggering bills, knowing full well that he can do so with impunity.

One collector, who didn’t want his name nor his firm mentioned, showed me such a case. The subject is a middle-aged man with a high-paying job out on North Island. He has owned several cars over the years since his case first began circulating around the collection agencies, and he owns a comfortable home in Lemon Grove.

Over the last six years, he and his wife have run up a staggering number of bills. He owes doctor bills, hospital bills, department store bills, clothing store bills, all to the tune of six thousand dollars. It’s not a question of being hard-pressed for money, as the collector pointed out. For example, a portion of the doctor bills were covered by an insurance company—money which the subject pocketed for himself.

This individual has simply learned the ins and outs of the credit game and realizes that, because of a number of laws governing the collection business, agents can’t touch him.

One time, an agent visited their house and met the man’s wife, who, it happened, was just leaving for the bank. When the agent asked if she was going to pay her bills, she told him certainly she was and to please follow her to the bank. She was very polite about it; so polite that she got in her car and promptly gave the agent the slip.

How can someone like this subject go to work each morning owing all this cash and come home each night knowing that his home will still be his, that his car won’t be attached, and that his pay-check won’t be garnished?

In a word, he’s smart. As a federal employee he is exempt from wage garnishment. This means that a collector cannot use one of his favorite methods of coercion, which is hounding a person’s employer over a personal debt. Also, the collector cannot seek legal action to have a portion of his paycheck set aside to pay back debts.

The collector is restricted by state laws which give exemptions to the debtor on what can and cannot be attached for payment of back debts. For instance, a homeowner can claim $20,000 equity in his house which is un-attachable. He also has the right to a car and to all tools and equipment if used in his business. He also gets an exemption on the family car, and another on his savings account.

But if the subject who has learned how to beat the credit game makes up only a small percentage of a bill collector’s cases, a more common example would be a woman like Levon.

She’s in her mid-thirties and owes $150 to a Chula Vista doctor. Doctors are easy marks for people who don’t like to pay their bills. They rarely run credit checks on new patients, and since patients are usually sick when they come for a visit, it makes turning them away more difficult.

Levon, for example, brought in her two children for treatment for pneumonia. After receiving shots, X-rays, and follow-up treatment, the children were cured and Levon promised to pay up. She had an insurance policy through the Navy. Over the next several months, however, she did not pay, nor for that matter even send in her insurance policy. Written reminders and phone calls did nothing except elicit heartfelt assurances that the bills and the insurance policy would be paid.

At the same time her baby-sitter was also seeing the same doctor and running up a bill. True to form, the sitter kept making promises, but not payments, on her account. After six months the Levon account was turned over to a collection agency. But in the meantime, Levon got married and moved, leaving no forwarding address. The baby-sitter, after being told she could receive no more treatment unless she attempted to pay her bill, coughed up nine dollars of her $160 account. Shortly afterwards, she started looking around for another doctor.

Jack Thompson, like other San Diego collectors, claims that the bill collecting business is already heavily regulated and that any more restrictive legislation will only make it easier for debtors to dodge their bills.

“And companies don’t write off debts,” he points out. “People get charged for them. The public does. Five cents on every dollar’s worth of merchandise bought goes toward bad debts. The consumer ends up paying for them.”

Still, there are the “James Clarks” of the world, who use any means available to collect money. In case you get caught a payment or two behind, you should know that a collection agency is allowed to:

— call your employer and inform him that you are in debt.

— seek legal action to garnishee your wages.

— gain a writ of attachment and take possession of your assets.

A bill collector, on the other hand, cannot:

— misrepresent himself as a state official, policeman, or federal investigator.

— harass you in person or on the telephone; repeated phone calls at all hours of the day, to you or your employer, are illegal.

Lots of people get caught in the pinch when it comes to bills, but usually a talk with the collector first to explain your problem will straighten out any potential credit hassles later. More often than not you can work out a payment plan with the collector, through which you voluntarily pay off your debt a little at a time. But if you do get a collector who seems bent on harassing you and whose methods seem abusive and offensive, then your best bet is to contact the state Department of Consumer Affairs and tell them your case.

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