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Needing their dough

Debt collectors tread a fine line between politeness and persistence

McClatchy Tribune (McClatchy Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)
McClatchy Tribune (McClatchy Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)
James A. Fussell McClatchy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There’s a sign in Jim Coy’s otherwise bland office that reads: “God’s last name is not damn.” “People come in and they’re upset, and they use profanities,” Coy said. “So we decided to put the sign up.” Debt collection might be stressful in these economic times, but it doesn’t have to be ugly.

Coy and his brother Cliff, co-owners of Elite Financial Services Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., have been collecting debt for more than two decades, starting in the business with their father.

Over the last 23 years they have recovered money from dishwashers, dentists, lawyers, doctors, even professional athletes. And they know how most people think of them – heartless bloodsuckers who will chase you down a dark alley and brainwash you with a trash-can lid to get their money.

The reality is far less draconian. Still, debt collectors are held in almost universally low regard. Just hearing the words “debt collector” causes unemployed Marcee Stewart to frown.

“I can’t really tell you what I think, because a lady doesn’t use those kinds of words,” she said. “Let’s just say I don’t like them.”

She’s not alone. The Federal Trade Commission says grievances against collectors topped its complaint list for the last three years. More debt equals more debt collectors. Ten years ago there were 383,000 debt collectors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now there are more than 430,000. By 2016, that number is expected to swell by 23 percent, a projected growth rate that far surpasses other occupations. And while our debt is rising – today Americans owe nearly $2.6 trillion – a slumping economy doesn’t necessarily mean a windfall for collectors.

“A common misconception is that debt collectors must be doing great during tough economic times,” said John Nemo, spokesman for the American Collectors Association in Minneapolis. While more debt is being sent to collection, it’s harder to collect from cash-strapped people who use what little money they have for essentials like gas and groceries.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, the Coys said.

“You just can’t call people up, browbeat them and drop an anvil on their head and think everybody’s going to respond to that,” Cliff Coy said.

Take Marcee Stewart, for example.

“I had one guy call me and basically just yell at me for five minutes,” said Stewart, who has been looking for a job since November. “I was like, ‘Look, I don’t have a job right now. I can’t lose my house or let my kids starve. What do you want me to do? I’m going to pay. I just can’t right now.”

Debtors, too, have crossed the line. Nationally, Nemo said, there have been reports of debtors who followed collectors home, published pictures of their houses and gave out their addresses and phone numbers on the Internet. They’ve even been physically abusive.

The Coys have been yelled at, cursed and hung up on. But they haven’t experienced much worse.

It’s all in the way you treat people, they say.

The brothers train their staff of five to walk a fine line. On the one hand, they must be polite, respectful and empathetic listeners. As members of the American Collectors Association in Minneapolis, they abide by the 1977 Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which forbids abusive, deceptive or unfair tactics.

On the other hand, they must be aggressive, single-minded and blunt. They have one job: Get the money.

“Our approach is, ‘You owe our client the money, we want it, and we want it all,’ ” Cliff Coy said. “Our job is to collect money for our clients as quickly as we can get it into our hot little hands.”

Often getting debtors to pay what they owe is a question of motivation, and not everyone is motivated the same way.

“Some people are motivated from pride,” Cliff said. “Other people are motivated out of honor or honesty. Other people are motivated from anxiety.”

What happens if debtors refuse to pay or even take collectors’ calls?

“Our policy is if somebody hangs up on you, you can call them back one time,” Cliff said. “If they hang up again, we’re done trying to get a hold of that person that day. At some point we’ll have to make a decision whether we’re going to recommend that the client proceed against them legally.”

And if people don’t like it?

“I’m not going to apologize for what I do,” Cliff said. “Everybody ought to pay who they owe.”


“Figure it out,” Cliff tells them. “Go talk to somebody who loves you. Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa.”

“And we’ll make suggestions,” Jim said. “You’ve got 401(k)s, you’ve got life insurance, you’ve got savings. Can you get an advance from your employer?”

Over the years they’ve helped thousands face their responsibilities. They’ve even made a few friends.

“Literally hundreds of times I’ve had people tell me, ‘I really appreciate you helping me get this resolved,’ ” Cliff said. He’s even had people who have paid off their debt call to chat.

“I’m a good listener,” he said. “That’s one of the things that’s made me a good collector.”

Another thing is his attitude.

“Not only is it our job to get our client’s money, but to get it amicably,” Cliff said. “Just because they owe money to one of our clients, that doesn’t make them a bad person. Now, are there some people in our industry who (are abusive)? Probably. But we’ll never do that. If we caught one of our collectors doing that, they’d get fired on the spot. Not only is it illegal – in our minds, it’s immoral.”

Cliff said: “I believe most debtors are honest, and want to do the right thing.”

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