Wednesday, March 4, 2009

We Seek Dead People

In the archive of sordid and most loathed occupations (Repo men, Eviction companies, Meter maids, Denver booters, Tow Truck drivers, Pawn brokers, to name a few) the Debt Collector was already at the low end of the pecking order, even amongst this rogues gallery.

Now comes word we have a subculture within the profession of debt collection which may be even more ignominious: debt collectors for dead people.

MINNEAPOLIS — The banks need another bailout and countless homeowners cannot handle their mortgage payments, but one group is paying its bills: the dead.

Dozens of specially trained agents work on the third floor of DCM Services here, calling up the dear departed’s next of kin and kindly asking if they want to settle the balance on a credit card or bank loan, or perhaps make that final utility bill or cellphone payment.

The people on the other end of the line often have no legal obligation to assume the debt of a spouse, sibling or parent. But they take responsibility for it anyway.

Dead people are the newest frontier in debt collecting, and one of the healthiest parts of the industry. Those who dun the living say that people are so scared and so broke it is difficult to get them to cough up even token payments.
But again, in most states the bereaved are not responsible for their loved one's debt. This isn't really a valid claim of debt collection as much as it is vultures chewing over the carcass, before the dead have even begun to cool in the ground.

Get a load of the "empathic listening" techniques taught to the collectors.

Collecting from the dead, however, is expanding. Improved database technology is making it easier to discover when estates are opened in the country’s 3,000 probate courts, giving collectors an opportunity to file timely claims. But if there is no formal estate and thus nothing to file against, the human touch comes into play.

New hires at DCM train for three weeks in what the company calls “empathic active listening,” which mixes the comforting air of a funeral director with the nonjudgmental tones of a friend. The new employees learn to use such anger-deflecting phrases as “If I hear you correctly, you’d like...”

“You get to be the person who cares,” the training manager, Autumn Boomgaarden, told a class of four new hires.

Not everyone has the temperament to make such calls. About half of DCM’s hires do not make it past the first 90 days. For those who survive, many tools help them deal with stress: yoga classes and foosball tables, a rotating assortment of free snacks as well as full-scale lunches twice a month. A masseuse comes in regularly to work on their heads and necks.
This has to represent some kind of new low, even in the unseemliness that is the debt collection industry. Everyone has to make a buck, and in these tough times, I suppose preying on dead people may be no less noble a pursuit, but really...hounding the recently bereaved, in some cases, "down to the penny" for "debts" they aren't responsible for in the first place?

I guess you can take death off the list of life's certainties ("death and taxes"). Debt now follows you to the grave and beyond.

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