Dear Business Insider:
From the headline — Debt Collectors: ‘Death Threats Are Part Of The Job’ — through the first five paragraphs, you’d never know that this is an article that’s actually sympathetic, sort of, to the collection industry.
Kali Geldis, Deputy Managing Editor, skews the lede in the wrong direction: consumers are terrified of debt collectors, the industry is raking in money hand over terrifying fist, record-high number of complaints.
The reality: the majority of consumers appear to have an adult relationship both with their credit and debt collectors. Are they besties? No. But what a dumb way to measure the success of this kind of relationship. The industry doesn’t do better in times of economic down-turn because, as it turns out, people can’t pay debt collectors any better than they can pay their original creditors.
And as to the complaints number: so! tired! (Browse through our past coverage of the myths and reality of those complaint numbers in our Complaints Issue. One quick point: 164,361 complaints only looks record-high when it isn’t compared against the number of contacts debt collectors make — which is in the billions. With a B.)
And the death threats alluded to in that questionably written headline?
Those are actually against debt collectors. Which was a crazy, Six Sense-style twist for me when I read the article.
Business Insider spoke with four debt collectors to get their experiences:
If there was one universal among all four debt collectors we spoke with, it was that death threats happen.
“One time someone mailed us human excrement in a box,” said Kerri Fivecoat, a freelance journalist who worked in the debt collection industry for more than a decade. “It happened at the internal third-party agency I worked at. We always had lots of bomb scares.”
Being a debt collector can be a scary experience, says Ben Nettleton, who used to work in a third-party collection agency in the Houston area. While his stint as a debt collector lasted only 89 days, he was left a very threatening voicemail one night by a man who called himself a “straight shooter.”
“I got this and I’m not someone who’s offended easily, but it did make me think,” Nettleton said. “Does it throw you and kind of shake you? Yeah. I didn’t call him back.”
That story is usually reversed, where the report is on an alleged colletion agency doing something awful. And yet, how wrong would one be if one posited that there’s probably more abuse from consumer to collector than the other way around?
But also: maybe that’s not the conversation to be having in the first place?
What’s disappointing about this article is how it had an opportunity to not get mired down in “Debt Collectors Sure Have a Bad Reputation!” and actually be sort of a best practices piece for both sides.
It actually gets there, towards the end, with some tips from collectors on how consumers should interact with collectors:
Every debt collector we spoke with had some advice for consumers. The one echoed most often was to stay in touch.
“A lot of consumers will run and hide and not answer the phone and then we have to go about hunting them down,” Bryan Franzoi, operations manager at Cumulus Funding says. “If someone answers the phone and is honest with us, we can normally find a solution.”
Several of the debt collectors agreed that consumers often think they have to pay the full bill or nothing at all, and that can be a costly mistake. Payment plans are a tool that collectors like to use to get consumers to start paying the debt, even if it’s only a small bit at a time. Dunn says she’s set up payment plans for some people that were for $5 or $25 a month because, in the end, she was able to get them to commit to paying something and keep communication lines open.
Too bad the article spent too much time confirming stereotypes before attempting to diffuse them.