Confessions of a Former Bill Collector

Debt in collections? These insider tips could help.

Back in my college days, I worked part time as a bill collector. My job with a major credit card issuer gave me some amazing perks, like health insurance, tuition reimbursement and flexible hours. There was a reason for the upside — because the job itself sucked away at my soul.

I spent 20 hours a week calling people (during dinner time) and asking for money. The ironic part? I had past due bills of my own and wasn’t a stranger to collector calls. Despite hating my job most days, I learned some important lessons that anyone facing past due bills should know.

Collectors Are Trained to Use Your Emotions to Their Advantage

Despite what you might imagine, bill collectors receive massive amounts of training. I spent six weeks in a classroom learning what to say and how to say it before I ever took a live call. We learned the system for documenting everything the card members said so that it could be used to the bank’s advantage on future collection calls.

There were very specific things my co-workers and I said to “encourage” cardholders to bring their accounts current. Of course, everything the bank told us to say or do was perfectly legal and complied with the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. However, the company intricately understood the emotional hot buttons to press with their customers to increase the likelihood of payment. Our job was to collect as much past-due money on each account as quickly as possible.

Sometimes we pretended to care and befriend the people we called to get a commitment to pay. Other times, we reminded them sternly of the dire consequences to their credit and the possibility of wage garnishment to scare them into compliance. We were trained to use emotion to the bank’s advantage, so it’s important you understand this when you’re dealing with bill collectors.

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Ignoring Collectors Only Makes Things Worse

You might think ignoring collector calls is the better route to go, but you’d be mistaken. When card members didn’t send payments or return the bank’s calls, we fast-tracked them to the things that would get their attention: calling their place of business, negative reports to the credit bureau, wage garnishments and the like. It’s better to take the call, inform the collector of your situation and advise them of when you’ll be able to make a payment, even if it’s not the full amount due.

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Having a Plan in Place Before the Collectors Call You Will Improve the Situation

You want to know exactly how much you are paying on each debt and when you’re sending the money before the creditors start calling. Make sure you prioritize your debts to ensure your basic needs are covered. Pay your rent or house payment first, followed by your car payment, insurance and fuel. It’s more important to have a roof over your head and a ride to work than it is to pay your Visa bill in full.

Yes, you will need to take action to increase your income and decrease your expenses so that you can rectify your situation. This might mean finding cheaper housing and transportation as part of your long-term plan. When I talked with a card member who told me the overview of her situation, how much she paid that month and her long-term plan for rectifying the situation, it was like finding the holy grail. The bank knew a customer like that was committed to correcting the situation and was more likely to be accommodating with payment arrangements.

If you are in a situation of having more bills than money right now or know someone who is, you need to act from a place of deliberate calm, not fear and panic. Yes, you owe money, and it is your responsibility to make good on your obligations. However, make a plan ahead of time, before the collectors start calling, so they don’t bully you into a money move that could be detrimental to your long-term financial health.

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