It would be a tongue-in-cheek understatement to say that many members of the collections industry are a bit sensitive to perceived criticism. They should be – there’s a lot of it going around and it is quite wearing.
For starters, how about Julie Brill of the FTC standing before the attendees of the annual ACA International meeting in July of this year in which she basically told them, “You are either with us, or you are against us,” when it comes to ensuring ethical and legal practices. (She also announced the release of a 71-page study titled “Repairing a Broken System” which details a preponderance of evidence that consumer rights are being trampled by debt collectors.)
Then, we have the every-other-day editorials excoriating the bill collector. In USA Today last month: “Firms Employ Questionable Techniques.” And, the “Hounded” series by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, also in October. And, “No Shows Allows Debt Collectors Lacking Evidence to Win Court Cases” in the Scripps-Howard newspapers way back in December 2009.
The noise on the blogosphere is even more strident, and there are few friends or supporters to be found. Social Media has become even more insistent, emotional and instant in its criticisms than any fleet of newspapers could hope to be.
The industry’s own web spokespeople, namely www.insideARM.com, take note all this and are replete with alarming news and calls to action. Almost unanimously, these outlets and industry executives are wringing their hands over the “unfair generalizations” in which a “few bad apples” are the source of the negative press.
(insideARM.com has gone so far as to publish a public relations whitepaper called: The 5 Steps to Protecting Your Good Image: How to Avoid Being Tarred and Feathered Because You’re a Debt Collector, which I heartily recommend you read. I know it is good; I contributed to it.)
Individuals and agency owners in the debt collection business complain their already-tough job is made worse by a consumer culture comprised of people who will not pay their bills – “entitled” to stiff their creditor. It’s their fault.
Out of all this, something good is growing.
That good is in the dawning realization that this industry needs to clean itself up, that a new code of ethics consistent with today’s financial realities and social matrix must be formulated, and that a new and more respectful way of dealing with “debtors” (remember – the ones once called valued customers) must emerge.
Based on what I have learned to date, the industry’s betterment can only be an inside job.
By way of working to bring my book — Written Off – America and Americans — into existence since early 2010, I deliberately set about to see my industry — our industry — with new eyes in order to create a survival handbook for both debtors and creditors.
I approached this task from the “Wisdom of Crowds” perspective — you may want to Google that phrase — and I reached out via Social Media to poll all parts of the connected world – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc., to secure a 360-degree circle of feedback. At some points in time, it felt more like a circular firing squad…with me in the middle.
This is how powerful social media is, and can be, for this industry.
I wrote what turned out to be a controversial blog for insideARM.com about a matter of public record: a lawsuit by a former Chase Bank employee, Linda Almonte, claiming wrongful termination. The source was a New York Times article called “Debt Collectors Face a Hazard: Writer’s Cramp.” It took the debt selling and purchasing industry to task for robo-signing affidavits as part of a lawsuit-mill to get debtors into court.
The article referenced Ms. Almonte in her role as a team leader over advisers, analysts and managers at JPMorgan Chase in which she was responsible for preparing a debt portfolio for sale. Some 23,000 delinquent accounts with a face value of $200MM, were to be sold off at roughly 13 cents on the dollar, which would realize a net of $26MM for the bank.
But, “We found that with about 5,000 accounts there were incorrect balances, incorrect addresses…even cases where a consumer had won a judgment against Chase, but it was still part of the package being sold,” she told The Times.
She flagged the defects, which were shrugged off by her manager, contacted senior counsel at the company, and within days found herself out on the street.
When I published my blog, “Follow Directions or be Fired!” last week, I got considerable – and actually quite supportive – response from the readership. Tellingly, most preferred “anonymous” to the use of their actual names.
People within the insideARM.com family, the ones not defending business-as-usual approaches or blaming the consumer for being deadbeats, can be seen wanting change – real change, and they expressed that desire in comments on the blog. To wit:
“It might be best for a few to show the courage of Ms. Almonte.” – An observation.
“Hip Hip Hooray for Linda. She did the right thing, but unfortunately is out of work. However, I suspect not for long when others hear this story.” – Anonymous.
“The Company (and company) only wants to seem compliant when an audit rolls around. Props to Linda for standing up for what is right and doing her job with integrity.” – Anonymous.
“I spent many years in the forward flow arena and the integrity of the portfolio was first. We made money later.” – JB
One attorney responded strongly:
“The connection between Ms. Almonte’s situation and the current market crisis is right on the mark. After Enron collapsed, GE Capital’s then in-house counsel, Nancy Barton, asked “Where were the lawyers?” Answer: the lawyers were there, aware and some pointed out the red flags consistent with their ethical and corporate responsibilities but were quickly shot down (if not fired) by those in power…
Smart employees know that speaking out will likely lead to termination and subsequent litigation frequently leads to lengthy unemployment. Silencing through severance payments, which are virtually always accompanied by employer-required releases, only perpetuates the problem. So, under the circumstances, what can be done to encourage more ‘whistle blowing?‘” – NB
I repeat NB’s last question – what can our own industry do to encourage people to speak out, at minimum, or provide them a whistle blowing avenue, at worst? As another (anonymous) contributor put it:
“What we need is more leadership, more courage to stand up for what we believe in, without fear… If more people followed (Linda’s) example, maybe we could change the way things are to the way they should be.”
And, others pointed out the obvious downsides of not acting responsibly.
“Another point not mentioned, and equally important, is that by selling bad paper, Chase increases the pressure on our industry from angry consumers and the plaintiff’s bar. Even if Ms. Almonte is successful in the suit, Chase has caused damage to the rest of us in the industry.” – Anonymous.
“Listen to what Linda has to say with an open mind. I had the misfortune of questioning why bad debt loans were being sold to a specific company rather than by a bid process. I was told to either go along or leave in so many words. Eventually, the failure of the purchasing company and their affiliated loan commitments to the bank were one of the primary reasons for the sale of this mid-western bank.” – Not alone.
To be continued…
I didn’t stop with the insideARM.com family on the particular story/post. I featured a similar piece at my own website, www.WrittenOffAmerica.com, as well as trained my sights on the LinkedIn population and its scores of groups dedicated to debt collection.
I will share the remarkable – and sometimes testy – responses I got by way of this effort in my next blog.
Until then, I would appreciate hearing more from my fellow travelers in our field of credit and collections. Is there a change in the air? Are we ready to approach our work differently? If so, in what ways, and what will it take for this industry to remove the tarnish?
See you in the blogosphere…