Debt collectors want you to know they're here to help. (No, really)

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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

Y ou're having a hard time coming up with the cash. That's understandable. The economy tanked and dragged you down with it. Trish Hilliard gets that. She knows times are tough.

But here's the deal: You owe the money, and it's her job to collect. In the delicate relationship between debtor and collector, she has to be authoritative, always "in control." But nice, too, careful to keep her voice at a soothing lilt. She wants you to trust her.

"I'm here to help," she says.

Maybe there's money in a 401(k) that can be tapped, or a relative who can make a quickie loan. Or perhaps there's a little jewelry -- have any gold or mismatched earrings that can be hocked and make this unpaid bill go away? "If you can't pay in full, how much can you pay today?" she says. "If you can't pay today, let's work out an arrangement."

Always tough, the collections business has become even more difficult as the economy staggers and the unemployment rate rises. Business may be booming as the nation's collective pile of unpaid bills grows, but more of the people who say they can't pay really can't. These days, if they recoup anything, collectors have to accept smaller payments over longer periods of time.

Computer screens flash with the personal financial data of those who have fallen behind -- a measure of the wreckage of the Great Recession. Here, in unpaid bill after unpaid bill, are thousands of dollars owed to companies that in turn have outsourced the often unwelcome business of dunning to American Collections Enterprise, headquartered on the fifth floor of an aging office building behind Landmark Mall in Alexandria.

Like her colleagues, Hilliard, who is 30 and makes enough to own her home and drive a Lexus, uses a fake name ("Sandy Williams") because when you call people all day long asking them to pay their bills, reprisal is a real concern. She is trained in the art of "dissecting the wallet," as her boss calls the ability to quickly divine who can pay and who can't. (Renter? Maybe not so much. Homeowner? Ding-ding-ding!)

In the middle of the firm's call center, another set of data flashes on the wall, like a stadium scoreboard chronicling in real time the success of each of the dozen or so collectors working the phones: the number of consumers they've reached, the amount they've collectively raked in (on a recent day: $3,642 in little more than two hours on the job) and the commissions they've each made. A whiteboard nearby stirs the competitive juices by ranking "Top New Hires" and toting up how much of their monthly quota they have each made to date.

"Clients want payment in full, and that's the goal on the first call," says Michael J. Sutherland, president and chief executive of American Collections. "But that only happens less than half the time."

Most people want to pay their bills, he says, they just need a little assistance.

Which is what his callers are standing by to deliver. So please don't hang up.

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