There’s nothing like hyperbole to get a potentially intelligent discussion about consumer debt started on the wrong foot.
In a Huffington Post opinion piece yesterday that claims to be about the upcoming presidential election (but which in actuality is a thinly-veiled excuse to debase every debt collection business in America except his own), The Sleeper Voting Bloc That Can’t Sleep, Bill Bartmann, CEO of CFS II, writes: “One family received more than 500 calls from a collector in two months. They don’t stop at calls to home, either, but talk with neighbors, call at work, and plaster your delinquency across Facebook and other social media.”
Two things are going on in this paragraph. The first is a great–albeit isolated (i.e. single), anecdotal example of a potential FDCPA violation. The second speaks to the power of language to distract readers from real issues and thoughtful conversations. “Plaster” is a splendid, loaded verb. So forceful, so intentional. The problem, however, is that the msnbc.com story Mr. Bartmann links to beneath the phrase “plaster your delinquency across Facebook and other social media” doesn’t really corroborate his exaggerated claim.
That story, Debt collectors troll Facebook — are they going too far?, which at least has enough integrity to ask a question rather than posit insinuation as “Capital Letter ‘T’ Truth,” cites an actual source at the Federal Trade Commission, who says, “‘Normally, collectors use social media to locate people or see if there are any assets that might be collectable,’ notes Joel Winston with the Federal Trade Commission. ‘But we have received a few complaints about collectors who are using social media to either impersonate the person’s friends or otherwise use it for harassment.’”
Note the words “normally” (which, in this context, also means “legally”) and “a few complaints.” Should we assume Mr. Winston, an employee at the federal agency charged with compiling consumer complaints, and, by law, reporting to Congress each year on its findings, doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “a few”? Or might it be reasonable to assume that Mr. Bartmann’s characterization of the facts in his own editorial grossly overstate the case?
Moreover, the msnbc.com story—though again, I’m not really faulting it—also builds its argument on the anecdotal experience of one consumer. Let me be crystal clear: I do not cast doubt or judgment on Ms. Beacham’s experience. That’s not the point. She is still one example—and while that does not diminish the seriousness or validity of her allegations, it doesn’t make a scientific case for Mr. Bartmann’s claim of collection agencies “hounding consumers mercilessly,” a phrase that might have been pulled from Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie or a handful of other American Sentimental novels. Emotional arguments based on the authority of (individual) experience contain an inherent rhetorical weakness in that they often ask the question, “Whose experience?” More on this presently.
The irony of Mr. Bartmann’s latest diatribe is that the Huffington Post also published another debt collection story yesterday. This piece, Access Receivables, Debt Collection Agency, Increases Payments 40 Percent With ‘Nice People’ Strategy, however, tells a radically different story about collection agency business strategy than the one Mr. Bartmann tells (over and over and over again). That article cites insideARM.com’s interview with Mr. Gillespie in which he discusses the specifics of how Access Receivables’ “nice people collect more” program is deployed (and measured) across the organization, an extensive array of financial education resources made available to consumers through Access Receivables’ Why Credit Matters portal (including links to the FTC should a consumer choose to file a debt collection-related complaint), and a close-up view of a training and incentive program for collection representatives that rewards excellence based on customer service and the receipt of a bona fide letter of recommendation from a debtor. Perhaps Mr. Bartmann was too busy composing his latest invective against the entire accounts receivable management industry for HuffPo to read anything else it had published yesterday.
It is right then, I think, that we return to the concept of arguments based on the authority of experience. As I alluded to above, the frequent problem with these claims is that one’s own experience—or those of their family, or friends, or co-workers around the old water cooler—rarely rises to the level of proving a statistically accurate reflection of reality. Thus when Mr. Bartmann invokes one isolated example of an alleged debt collection abuse he happened to hear about as grounds for throwing thousands of collection agencies and the hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers they employ under the bus, his argument begins to crumble the second it hits the page.
Said another way, the catch that’s built into most every authority of experience claim is that it can be easily refuted with a competing claim from someone else’s experience. So yesterday Mr. Bartmann again cites a one-off example to make the case for “scaring” the collection industry into submission, while on the same day, in the very same publication, the Huffington Post highlights Access Receivables, a debt collection agency that according to a range of statistical measures is doing things right.
If this were a tennis match, what we’d be looking at is deuce. It would be a great sight to behold if Mr. Bartmann’s next serve wasn’t a double fault.
Michael Klozotsky is the Chief Content Officer at insideARM.com. Long ago he studied American Sentimentalism under the great Nina Baym at the University of Illinois, which accounts for his literary shout-out to Catharine Maria Sedgwick.