“My name’s not Sean, and I don’t owe you any money.”
That’s how my side of many conversations begin on my cell phone. And this is the story of how I became a deadbeat (once removed), and my experience with getting on debt collectors’ lists (never removed, no matter how hard you try).
Six months ago, I got a new cell phone. Soon after, it became clear the phone number’s previous owner, Sean M., had borrowed substantial sums for a mortgage and for other purposes from several well-known national banks. Sean did not pay his debts, a fact that debt collectors began calling to remind me of. Daily. Having no prior experience of being in debt collectors’ crosshairs, this was an eye-opener on how, at a retail level, the debt collection process works.
A typical conversation would go like this:
“May I speak to Sean M., please?”
“He no longer owns this phone number and I don’t know who he is.”
“Could you ask him to call us, please?”
“I said I don’t know him.”
Over time and dozens of calls, a few things became clear. The first and most important lesson was that bill collectors are paid to collect bills, not to fix their bosses’ database errors. If you answer the phone listed in their records, you are presumed to be the person who owes the money, and if you insist you’re not, you’re also presumed to be a liar.
To their credit, just one bill collector called after 8 p.m., and no one made a threat that would have been illegal under the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. But neither was there any action taken to correct errors. When told their records are wrong, they insisted they were right, or hung up, or promised to fix it but didn’t. The debt collectors I dealt with clearly saw it in their self interest to move to the next call, and in moving on, they in essence threw my number back in the deadbeat pool for some other collector to deal with.
Asking to speak with a supervisor gets you cut off, or put on perpetual hold, or an encore performance of the conversation above. The results were the same. Despite months of protestations, the number of phone calls increased. Apparently, word got around: “Sean’s back!”
My “favorite” variation came from the automated bill collection calling system one national bank employs. It leaves phone messages demanding you phone back to a certain number. Once you do, you cannot proceed unless you “enter your 10-digit account number — now.” Not having any account, I couldn’t comply, now or ever. Within a few days, another automated debt collector called to demand my time.
The experience has left me more sympathetic to those caught in the system. I didn’t owe anyone a penny, and yet I couldn’t escape the debt collection system.
I finally did what the bill collectors did: I changed numbers, throwing “Sean’s” phone number back into the pool of available numbers, passing the problem down the line.
I pity the next “Sean.”
And no, I didn’t leave a forwarding message. My days as a deadbeat are finally over.