I’ve worn many hats. Often when I’m talking with co-workers I’ll begin to regale the crowd, as I begin to hold court, with tales from one or another of my previous career paths. With the exception of Sack Clerk and Dick Dancer (two very different fields – neither of which required any previous experience) none were as short lived as the time I spent as a Bill Collector. This is the story of Trent Walker, who is NOT a Texas Ranger. I was Trent Walker and he was a Bill Collector.
I’m a Systems Administrator by trade. But I didn’t always work in technology. Back in 1999 there was a big “.com bust” where all kinds of tech support jobs were suddenly shipped overseas. In that job drought I sought refuge working for a telecom. It all started out well. I had such great intentions. This wireless company offered decent pay and benefits as well as the perk of an almost free cell phone. The only catch? The local call center was only hiring for collections.
I began to work what they call inbound collections. The customers I spoke to still had cell phone service, they were merely a little too far behind on their bill. When they went to make a phone call the system would actually connect them to me. If all went well I’d simply explain the policy, divide their balance due out over whenever they got paid and make arrangements for them to keep service on. I did this for some time and eventually – after working hard and applying myself – I was able to get passed up repeatedly for promotions off of the call floor. This job wasn’t bad – actually it was pretty easy. I could come into work all hung over and do this job over the phone and if anyone ever noticed they never said a word to me about it. Then again, maybe that’s why I never moved up. Hmmm.
Eventually, I got surly with the customers. There’s a certain negativity that goes with arguing with mostly small business owners all day long. Many, many building contractors spoke to me. These were rugged types that probably had concrete on their work boots and were doing their level best to make ends meet. They didn’t appreciate my snotty power trip. (I can admit it.) They would get stiffed on a job or maybe just paid late. Most were already 30 days past due on their cell phone service, which they relied upon to make a living, so it would be temporarily disconnected.
I worked a lot of DC, Maryland and Virginia callers. These were often the most entertaining. In the following example, Jane Dough was connected to me because her service was cut off for failing to keep a payment arrangement she had made.
Me: Hi there, Mz Dough, this is So and So with YouKnowWho wireless. Your call has been…
Jane: Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, I need this phone back on, what can you do for me?
Me: Um, ok Ms. Dough, in reviewing your account, we already made a payment arrangement for your $500+ balance, some of which is over 90 days late and you didn’t keep it. We would need payment in full now to restore service.
Jane: Uh, fine – ok, whatever, let me make you a check.
Me: I’ll be happy to take your check, let me review your account. Oh, Ms. Dough, it seems you’ve bounced two checks to us already within the past year, so I can only accept guaranteed funds.
Jane: What the f*** does that mean?
Me: Im sorry Ms. Dough, I’m going to ask you not to use that kind of language…
Jane: You know what you can do? You know what you can do?? You can kiss the pink part of my ass!
This last part was said very close to the receiver. As she said it, she slowed down. I thought she was regaining control of herself. I can remember it to this day. I was stunned to silence and I tell you that I am not often lost for words. As I sat there with my mouth a gape envisioning this entreatment she had made to me, the next caller came in. I was prompted with the tell tale beep that meant this was my cue. I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. I started my next call. I swallowed this and became ever so slightly more jaded. In my dreams I am still haunted by Ms. Dough and her pink parts. I can still remember the sound of her jewelry as she gripped the handset and whispered into my ear.
One day someone tells me they heard a company that handles the really old and written off accounts pays commission and that people are making bank! Or maybe we were saying phat stax. Or a grip. Yes, that sounds right. People were making a grip of money and it was all about the Benjamins. As Whoopi’s character said in Jumpin’ Jack Flash: “Ben looks good, I haven’t seen Ben in a while.”
I called and made an appointment to interview. The name of this Collection Agency was something like “Egregious Collection Practices LLC” so that’s what I’ll pretend for the sake of this narrative. I had never worked on commission before and this didn’t go over well with the interviewer. He was a good looking but cocky bastard I’ll call Dick. I was dressed up in a shirt, tie and slacks for the interview. When Dick took me back to his “office” for the grilling and snow-job that passed for an interview I saw that everyone was dressed in Business Attire. All the men in pressed dress shirts and ties, the ladies in dresses appropriate for the office. There was a sense of excitement in the air.
Have you ever seen the movie, The Boiler Room? I can’t stress enough how simliar that movie was to the experience of working at ECP. Dick was a young cocker and he was second command under a larger asshole whose name escapes me. For all purposes Dick was the man, and the man was a Dick. He explained to me what a draw is and how he’s going to give me this amount of money monthly – as pay – with the requirement that I bring in a certain amount of collections accounts to meet this draw. He spoke of this money he was giving to me as if it was coming from his own back pocket. I would have two months to reach the draw before if I missed it my pay would be reduced for that which I wasn’t bringing in. Dick made it clear that he didn’t think I was going to do very well, but that he’d take a chance on me anyway. I wanted to do well and not let this Dick down. Looking back I’m pretty sure this a speech he’d given before.
During training it was explained that some people don’t handle being contacted by bill collectors very well. Some people actually get a little violent. It was required that we use an alias, and suggested that we use two. The law was that we could have up to two aliases and use them during the course of collections as long as they were on file with our agency. It was suggested that stronger names be chosen. I became Trent Walker. I used to deal with the monotony of taking phone calls all day by making up voices and accents. You’ve probably done this too. Now I was shown that it was actually highly effective to project a persona that worked for you in the art of collecting from these dead beats. These professional debtors. I began handling calls speaking with a dreadful effected drawl. I would simply imagine the most hillbilly, backwoods character actors I had ever seen on TV or in movies. I even slowed down my speech, as I myself tend to motor mouth. I would relish how long it took me to say anything at all, especially the mini-Miranda.
Over the years there are different things that we learn and will never, ever leave us. I can thank Ms. Michna of 7th grade English for the fact that I will take the first two stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” to the grave with me. Just as distinctly I remember the mini-Miranda. It was to be voiced on each call under penalty of fine or worse – the debt might be declared invalid. This was anathema. It was drilled into us to say the mini-Miranda.
This is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose.
Then I, as Trent, would drawl my way through this and then launch effortlessly and politely into the following:
Mr. So-and-So, Are you aware that you owe my client, YouKnowWho Wireless – [however many dollars and cents]? I’m just calling to confirm one final time that this is a flat refusal to pay before I file this with my office and we take any additional steps.
In training they also explained that we couldn’t do any of the following three things:
- Threaten legal action we weren’t actually going to take.
- Threaten legal action we weren’t actually able to take.
- Engage in harassing language on the phone with a debtor.
The good news was that while harassing language was forbidden by the FDCPA, harassment was not defined by the FDCPA. So there was in effect nothing that was explicitly disallowed. There were no off limits words. If you’ve ever been astounded by what a bill collector has said to you – and I regularly was shocked at what I overheard – this is why. There’s effectively no holds barred.
In the short script I use several terms that were the phrase that pays. These were golden, they told us. Indeed, they did tend to shake the money tree. The hot words were office, file, client, flat refusal to pay. I sat with a young lady that would lose her cool with people on the phone. I noticed they would stop taking her seriously. I hatched a plan. A plan that was quite lucrative.
I can’t stand training classes, so when on Friday of the first week they threw us on the phones, I was excited and ready to go. Dick took happy notice of my eagerness to start Smilin’ and Dialin’. There were quite a few catch phrases that were shouted on a regular basis. The energy level was kept extremely high. Later I found out that many of the employee’s were kept extremely high as well.
The day was broken down into two hour segments and our doings were overseen closely by our group leaders. It was what I imagine a work camp for cult members would be. During the first 2 hours of the day we would review our older cases and perform skip traces. Skip tracing is done with national databases that the agency pays for access to. If the phone numbers I had on file for a debtor were no longer good, all I had to do was request a copy of their credit report. The next day I’d have it in the their case file. I could see if any new addresses had appeared on their credit report. Sometimes the older addresses were good too. Often every address you’ve ever had is in your credit report. Plug in an address and out pops possible phone numbers. My favorite numbers were your mothers’.
Here’s why I loved your mother:
Me: This is Trent Walker with ECP and Associates of Dallas, Tx. I’m looking for Billy Boyd.
Mom: Billy’s not here, may I ask what this is about?
Me: I’m sorry ma’am but Billy is in some trouble here and I can only discuss this matter with him or his legal representative.
Mom: (Worried over the idea of Trouble and pissy that I’m denying her access to information that she spent nine months plus 18 years earning) I’m his legal representative.
Me: (Cleared of any responsibility now that mom said she was your lawyer on a recorded line) Cue the mini-Miranda.
The trick to collections is really simple. Disinterest. Well, articulation and disinterest. If I call up and use the buzz words alleging legal action, and I sound educated enough to perform some sort of legal action, people tended to find money in the budget. It was astounding. Thousands of dollars of outstanding balances would be setup to come out of checking accounts monthly or semi-monthly to eventually settle accounts in full. I was standing to make 20% – 35% from all the money I collected. The monthly payments would become residuals and as I worked the amount I made each month, they explained, would turn into large amounts of money. Debts are bought by external agencies for $0.0025 on the dollar. Any money made on them was a great deal of profit.
Due to the Boiler Room nature of the call floor and the proximity of my neighbors I learned to keep my finger on my mute button. Occasionally enough ruckus would get through onto my line and a debtor would ask me, “What’s all that noise?” My cover passing myself off as a capable and serious man with legal powers at his fingertips was in jeopardy. At these times I’d just smile and through my phony baloney drawl (that no one ever called me on), tell them it was Susan Anne from accounting’s baby shower. Or birthday. Or last day. There were a lot of fake parties.
I never made all that grip. People were warning me that this job was bad for my soul. Drugs had been offered to me at work to keep me able to work longer shifts with more energy. Drugged out people were working all day shifts from 8am to 8pm. Freaky stuff was going on in bathrooms. I overheard someone brag that they told a debtor they didn’t care he had to pay for his HIV meds, it was “fuckin’ in the butt that got him sick anyway.” Both parties laughed and congratulated each other. (Not that it made anyone pay up)
A situation went down where one of my debtors called in and alleged that when I used the phrase: “Yes that’s Walker, like Texas Ranger”, I was impersonating a member of the Texas Rangers Association. Evidently someone in her family was an actual Texas Ranger. Who knew. In any case, Dick’s boss called me in. Dick and The Man told me what happened. I agreed I’d change my last name so this couldn’t happen again. Trent Walter wouldn’t have this problem. Somehow the issue merited further discussion. It went on and on, and it continued to come down on me, over and over. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince them this issue was over. It felt as if they needed me to supplicate myself to them. I needed to grovel or beg or something, and this wasn’t going to work for me. Finally I couldn’t take it and I let them know I wasn’t cut out for this kind of party, and we parted ways.