Thursday, June 16, 2011

ReLoad: A Collection of Short Fiction Pt. 4


After a strangely brief interview I discovered my new calling in Columbus, Ohio. Collecting debts. Not a repo man, though I just adore that soundtrack. Not a knee cracker, although I just adore baseball bats. Not a third party raspy voiced chain smoking Jerky Boys crank caller hoping to recoup some percentage. First party, baby, three to six months past due on credit cards given to people that like clothes to much to just pay with the cash they actually have.

Technically the Boeing hangar of a call center Lisa already worked for across the aisle in Customer Service constituted a bank. Might’ve looked like a cube farm built inside a gutted mall church in the middle of an asphalt lake at the far edge of town, however compared to the guarded, gated, glittery glass encrusted proper corporate offices, the rather non-descript exterior might have been mistaken for a branch bank on steroids if you’ve had a couple and squinted.

A huge, mirrored office barn, the spacious accommodations met from either side at the front desk facing the only double-door entry, manned by a 24 hour receptionist and 24 hour security guard. Split down the middle like country and bluegrass, one side handled the Limited, Limited Express, and Structure. The other side handled Lerner, Layne Bryant, Victoria Secret’s, and Abercrombie and Fitch. The fact that many card holders didn’t realize all these stores collapsed into the same black hole often benefit collectors with updated contact information, and occasionally, point of sale debt repayment negotiations. Some store clerks hated that, others relished seeing a customer thinking they’re about to get a card and 10% off their transaction only to be put on the phone for a discussion about their four month overdue card at another store. I preferred the clerks wanting to help me catch debtors, yet that sort of zeal for nailing folks scared me too, as anyone whose day is made cutting up someone’s cancelled card in front of them with a wide, toothy, eyes slit smile probably should. How sharks look to seals, really.

At the back end of the place you could find the cafeteria counter and lunchroom, and beyond that, the Smoker’s Lounge, a place pretty much all of the collectors seemed to frequent. High anxiety or stress of the job, maybe wired for smoking, bitching, laughing raucously, maybe just needing to feel like you had a friend when everyone you called on the phone clearly hated you, and you never called with any good news or just to say, “Hello.”

I worked for a Friend of Dorothy named Julie who remains one of the best managers I’ve ever had. Partly for her directness, partly for her ability to drink most men blind, and partly because a punch in the arm from her meant you mattered to her, were welcome on her team, and that bruise would continue to remind you as much for well over a week. After handshake introductions as though my initial interview with her had never happened, she stepped back and sized up my oversized blue blazer and hand me down tie, recommend I take advantage of the new employee discount I had to pick up some slightly better threads. Nothing fancy, shirts and ties were fine, jackets looked too kiss ass for anyone in Collectionland’s liking.

The employee discount when you work in the corporate offices is a flat 20% of the price. Not the initial price, just the price. Sale price, special event price, buy two get three free price, didn’t matter. This never, ever made a single sales clerk that’d been sizing me up and looking me down happy.

To better paint that image, imagine someone appearing at your work dressed like a kid fresh off the streets from an afternoon washing windshields at stop lights, now remove the body odor and the grimy sheen clothes get when they’ve been worn too many days in a row. Despite practicing a modicum of personal hygiene and the fact that my Prunk stylings were all built up from stuff I’d bought from Abercrombie and that vest I’d gotten from Layne Bryant that buttoned up the wrong way; the sales associates often seemed shocked, genuinely struck speechless, to discover I had a better discount than they did, often better by a full 15 percent.

Sometimes the surly sorts would try to dock the 20% off the original price as a show of in store counter top authority; however a quick manager call would generally resolve that. One clerk in an Abercrombie told me the card I’d presented had expired. I explained to her that date on the card was my start date with the company. She just said, “Oh.” And looked deflated. Sales associates max out at 15 percent discounts, no matter how much they preen and hone their attitudes, their razor sharp repartee. I think the managers may have gotten more, perhaps the 20% I had, and after lasting six months in one of those grueling gigs, frankly, they’d earned the title and the discount to go with it. Although I have to wonder if working in a clothing store is like working in fast food. After two days working in a McDonalds, I didn’t eat Ronald’s offerings again for over a year. Do managers in mall clothing chain stores want a discount to wear more their work home with them?

Manager Julie paired me with Kurt, a sharp and oft lauded collector that looked a bit like Kurt Russell and Patrick Swayze’s love child, it worked for him. Assisting him like a well weathered, worldly, “kiss my grits” sort of Auntie was a woman who encouraged me to draw pictures to hang in my cubical, a key thing that lead to eventually earning a living, albeit a contractual one with a clear finish line, well after we’d left Columbus to Go West.

The systems were computerized, however by computers I mean a massive database system accessed from two foot deep monitors with multicolor Mad-Lib text fields floating on the same black that served as backdrop for all the original video games, though reminded me most of Joust for some reason. Though a step up from the Wang-Sun ochre screens at the Knight Library when I’d worked there during school at UK, the screens were geared to data entry without any frills, streamlined and geared specifically to task.

I picked up the codes and fields quickly, easy to do when they were so functional and specific. The notes field, however, left something to be desired. Imagine trying to boil a ten or fifteen minute conversation about financial arrangements down into a Twitter post and still leave enough detail another collector would understand what you meant or the person had agreed too. Kurt’s shorthand kung-fu had set a standard among most of the nearby collectors, and I certainly adopted his practices and made them my own. Though not quite as limiting as Orwell’s governmental language revisions in 1984, his methods were pretty Draconian. Drop all unnecessary vowels, supplemental words, vague details, or wordy flourishes. Use simple language, stick to the terms of the arrangements and details about risks, timelines, and added associated contacts should we need to skip trace them later. Other debts they claim to have we can compare against a credit bureau report later. Did you know first party creditors can pull a report anytime they want too, even when such pulls can affect the report’s score and make a person appear high risk to potential mortgage lenders? Not only is this ability likely in the fine print of any signed agreement for a card, they can anyway by how the reports work. Or could then, I’m sure a lot has changed since the early 90’s for how credit works and reports, though I suspect not to the benefit of the debtors. No profit in privacy except for privacy providers, for example.

It’s weird to think about how that year PCs were really just beginning to take hold as something any middle class home could have. We didn’t have one yet, we were becoming computer savvy from the perspective of database systems and dealing with stores and customers across the entirety of the US and Canada. I remember Kurt during a party on his condo patio showing off his mail order Starbucks coffee from his freezer, this great coffee company in Seattle that now sits on more corners and in more neighborhoods than most fast food joints combined. I still drank Maxwell House then, big burly can that’d end up filled with cat litter and cigarette butts outside the apartment.

An example of collection note taking:

Clld NA. 3. RT Prnts. Mom hm, cosign, crd cnclld, N STR Pay, Santa Cruz.

Called primary number, no reply.  Tried 3 times. Retried parents number. Mother answered, she’d cosigned the card, so can discuss bill due. Mother has no idea, outraged, wants card cancelled, she’ll pay it off in Santa Cruz store.

Truth is, the card had been effectively dead since it hit two months past due. The first two months don’t really count because there is so much room for error. Of course there is a spoken expectation that after a month or so of not receiving a bill, the card holder will inquire at a store or phone call to customer service to see what’s up. However, when every store under the sun is throwing cards at consumers in exchange for purchase discounts or other incentives, who has time to remember or track them all?

Not until a store has to confront an applicant with the unfortunate denial of a card after convincing that applicant to apply does the consumer suddenly remember they have debts outstanding that after three months begin to show up on their credit report and adversely affecting their credit score the longer they go unpaid. Having credit debt is awesome for credit scores, not paying at least the minimum payments is not. Strangely paying the cards off in full every month rather than carry a balance and accrue interest isn’t helpful for credit score either, not bad, just net zero. And having a hat full of credit cards, especially if any have high limits, is horrible for credit assessors, because part of the assessment is deciding how in the hole the applicant would be should they up and max out all those cards, particularly if they then fail to pay. Someone with a lot of cards and a mortgage and a car and kids will certainly not be putting paying off their Structure card as top A1 priority.

During the first two months past due, the debtors accounts go to the auto-dialer, an automated calling service manned by mostly kids, temps, and part timers who sit and wait for something to pop up on their screen, a simplified green only version of what I typically could see in the three to six months late queue. The line pops and as the information appears on their screen they’re suddenly talking to a real, live person who is already annoyed a recording has called them and asked them to wait for a service rep. I used to get some extra income working the autodialer when they were short staffed or wanted some more experienced collector help on weekends, and I always felt surprised how many people would wait for a real service agent to speak to them. I would have assumed a recording like that were telemarketing and hung up annoyed, however most folks the dialer reached seemed to hang around waiting for a voice to tell them why they were being bothered, at the least.

Autodialer calls weaned out the bad addresses, the missing info, juxtaposed numbers, misspelled names. Autodialer collectors had a script and tips about how to handle outliers. If something went sideways or someone went agro, they could patch the call to a full blown collector, often Kurt or Auntie, and not long after, to me. The “You can’t call me on the Lord’s day!” Sunday calls were my favorites, full of fire and brimstone, took me back to my childhood and the revivals and Sunday Southern stylings of the various variations of Christian. I recall once expressing that the cyclic tirade of indignant black woman in Georgia had become “Banal” and she misunderstood me, thinking I’d said “Anal”. Strangely, after I backpedaled politely and explained the misunderstanding, she softened, had a chuckle, and couple of days later the four month overdue debt, only a couple hundred bucks, had been paid off in full.

I learned the ropes quickly, and all my anger management issues, collector appetites, and OCD qualities thrived on the queue, the window of opportunity as the days, weeks, and months ticked by. Kurt and Auntie and the other collectors, mostly women, were impressed, though quick to correct and offer suggestions when I grew frustrated, or too loud, or had clearly let a debtor get the best of me.

My first month I had so many promises to pay. PTP. I beamed and walked like a cock for days. Kurt and Auntie said nothing, completely aware of what lie in store. Second month rolled up, a refreshed queue of freshly rolled in debtors, and wait, what’s this? One after another the PTPs I’d been so cocksure about didn’t pay. Almost none, and the ones that had, had paid a fraction of what had been promised.

I felt sick and enraged, betrayed and ready to scream at people. Kurt and Auntie then began phase two of the learning. Why people don’t pay. Sure, some lied, some forgot, some might yet still pay when they think to get around to it and met no malice or mischief. Most of all, some people simply couldn’t. People have multiple debts, and there is a story to their lives that a competent collector needs to draw out from the debtor, find ways to build empathy, commiseration, a sense of being together to the end. Trust, or a degree of it. As someone with serious trust issues, this proved a tall order indeed. And considering the abundance of bitter sorts I’ve met in the collections game, clearly not an ability everyone masters. I think at best I managed a stage worthy facsimile of compassionate empathy, and that seemed to cut it.

I contact all the failed PTPs again and kept a friendly, cool head about it. I asked questions, made small talk, looked for ways to commiserate, and when I learned enough I began to spot ways to plot plans to pay that were realistic within the constraints of the consumers I’d been charged to wrangle. People who know me might likely find this ironic since I spent many years trying to self sooth through the Church of Consumerism, however I’ll point out a key difference. I made sure to partner myself with smart people and learn from them, and I have never gone to collections for consumer goods. I did go to collections once with the IRS over an issue that emerged around penalties for extracting from a 401k account in the states to move the funds to Canada, however that turned out to have more to do with their clerical lunacy than my misunderstanding of the penalty percentages, I’d paid 10%, turns out the percentage, like the tips waiters prefer, is 20%. But I digress. Hell, the whole IRS hassle is probably overdue karmic retribution for my ever being a collector in the first place. If being in the Navy made me a sailor for life, working for the Limited made me a collector for twice as long.

After readdressing my fool’s gold PTPs, my second month recouped my first month’s losses, and my third month doubled my second month. By my fourth month I began taking calls escalated from the autodialer, and learning to skip trace from the handful of senior collectors working on dead accounts, accounts gone past six months that need to be reassessed for viability as write offs, or options for legal actions like wage garnishing, or in need of other assistance as the dept could be considered Limited’s error since the customer had never been spoken too and perhaps could have been fraudulently opened. At any time we could escalate weird or untouchable accounts to the senior collectors without waiting for the six month clock to run down, and that’s how I began learning to skip trace.

Kurt also helped me get started, providing me with a couple initial contacts at other card issuing banks, contacts worth real gold, and contacts that involved conference call introductions and a basket of flowers via FTP to get on board with.

First was Mary from Sears and Roebuck. If you want to touch a database that at that time touched more Americans than the Census, that was the one. Because their database didn’t just include credit cards. There were people who regularly got their tires replaced or cars serviced. There were holiday catalog subscribers. There were retired door greeters, and former employee discount holders, and VIP program members within various departments. Mary liked the flowers.

Next there was Anna. If there is a Glenda the Good Witch equivalent in Collectionland, she would have to sound like Anna. She got chocolates and we all pitched in for a boy’s bike when her son needed a first one. Anna worked deep within Citibank Visa, and she knew everything else that Mary didn’t.

And every now and then I came across information that I could pass on to them, a great feeling to repay them for all the wins they facilitated for us through leads or direct gotchas. Obviously any PTP with someone we got through to via intel from Mary or Anna meant ensuring those bills were paid first before ours, if any needed to be, though that situation never came up, people didn’t tend to owe Sears and were too afraid of Citibank to not pay up.

Over time I built up a plump Rolodex of my own, something to eventually pass on to the next protégé when I finally moved on. I had insurance contacts, an avenue the other collectors hadn’t explored, however made sense to me after picking up Lisa’s gig in the Firestone mail room in Cincinnati after she’d vacated it. Insurance had far more personal data about people than credit card companies, at least then, maybe not anymore, and different information as well, like next of kin, perfect skinny for skip tracing.

My finest moment of skip tracing occurred only about a week before I took an assistant manager gig over in New Accounts, a great beat to go out on. I’d tried to dredge a variety of means to locate a gentleman out in Louisiana to no avail. As a final shotgun approach I pulled credit bureaus on a couple simple variants of his name and an address that only showed up on one contact hit from years ago. A long shot, and cost Limited about ten bucks a pop for everyone I pulled, so a real pisser if I couldn’t show anything for the result.

I lucked out, one of the variants locked to a mortgage, paid off, however that filled in more information, a key part being that his first and middle name had been reversed, and in the days pre-Google, that made all the difference in the world. I used directory assistance to ring the guy, and imagine his surprise to discover that just a couple years after his retirement he had himself a maxed out card from Limited Express to pay off, and another from Victoria Secrets. The VS card popped up after I searched the internal database with the new, rearranged name and corrected address. Turned out his granddaughters had used his information to open accounts, and left him on the hook for an absurd amount of coin. He did not sound impressed. Next business day the cards were paid in full and closed. He had the store clerk call in to tell me, I hadn’t arrived in office yet to the talked to Auntie. He’d arrived with the shame faced hooligan girls in tow to pay the cards off. Old school Scarlett Letter shaming style. I felt bad for the guy and dug up the record on the clerk numbers that had opened the accounts, suspecting the clerk had to have known two girls shouldn’t put a man’s info on an application when that man isn’t present to represent himself.

I found that while one clerk had long moved one, the other clerk from LE now managed a different LE store down the road. After a smoke to consider what to do, I sent an internal letter to that region’s director to inquire into the bogus Limited Express card opening. Lacking email at that time, I don’t know what happened from that, hopefully some accountability for sloppy credit card opening, if nothing else. Email has made follow up so much easier.

I moved from collections to New Accounts, theory that having collected on so many bad eggs, I could help ensure less risky applicants walked away with credit cards. Noticing the sharp spike drop in approvals during my shifts, management quickly came around to ask if could maybe not accuse every crowded credit report or notch of a past late payment anywhere as grounds for denial. I learned the management expression Mitigated Risk. I did grow more amicable about approvals, as well as learn even more about what everything on a credit bureau means and how companies like Sally Mae and jewelry stores lie or false report fairly regularly and should be disregarded. Suspect even at my softest I approved less than any other manager or monitor.

More on New Accounts tomorrow, including my sideline gig creating training materials for new hires, collectors, and temps.

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