In all the years that John Motter has been an investigator, he never has known better times.

Certainly, there were good moments back in the 1940s when he was a hotel detective in Houston, watching for pickpockets and breaking up fights. And he made some money in the 1950s as a private eye in Denver, tailing wayward spouses to sundry motel suites.

But, for the last 20 years, Motter has been a different sort of investigator, a bill collector, and as far as he's concerned these are the best days of all.

"Everything's up. Our staff has doubled, we're putting in a new computer accounting system and next month we're moving to a bigger office," he says, sitting back in his chair and gesturing with a cigarillo as long as a China marker, "When the economy slides, this business goes up."

Motter, 61, manages the Credit Bureau of Frederick, a storefront debt collection and credit reporting agency that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Squeezed into a two-room downtown office cheerily festooned these days with glittery bunting and paper Santa Clauses, the bureau, begun during the Depression, is one of the oldest bill collection agencies in Maryland.

It is a $1 million-a-year business that specializes in collecting outstanding accounts for hospitals, department stores and other merchants: a kind of supply-side hired gun.

And, as the recession continues, Motter and his staff are finding that the number of delinquent debts is growing day by day. At last look, Motter's business was taking in 1,000 new accounts each month -- several hundred more than it was getting two years ago.

The agency's competition is growing, as well. Throughout Maryland, more and more people, seeing profit in the recession, are getting in on the debt collection market. According to state Consumer Credit Commissioner Alan Fell there now are 243 licensed bill collectors in Maryland, an astonishing jump of more than 200 since 1978.

"The reason is simple," he says. "You had a recent spate of high interest rates where businesses couldn't afford to carry debts for very long. Plus, unemployment keeps going up and people can't pay their bills. When that happens, you turn to a professional collector to work something out."

Last year, according to the American Collectors Association, merchants turned to the nation's 6,000 professional collectors in record numbers, handing over more than $8 billion in outstanding consumer debts--an increase of $5 billion in nine years.

John W. Johnson, executive vice-president of the Minneapolis-based trade organization, says that collectors have succeeded in recouping half that amount for merchants. The collectors' fee, he says, ranges between 40 and 50 percent of the dollars hunted down.

"The money involved is incredible. Last year our new business per collector increased 31 percent," says Johnson, whose trade group represents 2,850 collection agencies nationwide. "In this industry, it's boom time."

Adds Commissioner Fell, "During every lousy economic period you'll find people who are able to profit: bankruptcy lawyers, economic experts and collectors. Definitely collectors."

In the Washington area alone there are 122 debt collection agencies listed in the Yellow Pages, ranging from Allied Credit of Forestville to World Wide Collections of Springfield. William Foster, executive director of Maryland's Collection Agency Licensing Board, says that "99 percent" of the agencies are "very professional and ethical."

Under a four-year-old federal law establishing rules of conduct for debt collection agencies, bill collectors are prohibited from using threats of violence, obscene language or frequent and annoying phone calls.

Gone are the days when a bill collector, according to Motter, "could use an eight-foot goon with a billy club," threaten to break a debtor's legs, telephone him at 2 a.m. each night, and, when all else failed, pull up a truck emblazoned with the word "DEADBEAT" on its side panels and park it in front of the debtor's house until the bill was paid.

"The old image of the collector is a guy harrassing a cancer patient on his deathbed," he says. "The guy out on the street may still think of us that way, but that's not us. We're respectable people who contribute to the community."

While licensing director Foster says that the yearly total of proven cases of debt collector harrassment is "few," the number of inquiries about what collectors can and cannot do has skyrocketed in the last four years, according to consumer protection investigators in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties.

"Most of the calls are from people who've never had to deal with debt collectors before," says Nellie Miller, chief investigator for Montgomery County's Consumer Affairs Office. "These are doctors, Ph.D.s, and white-collar professionals who earned maybe $50,000 a year, then suddenly lost their jobs. They can't pay their bills, the debt collector calls, and they fall apart. It's like, 'How dare you?' They don't know how to handle it."

Miller says that her office has received more than 1,000 calls this year concerning debt collectors,80 percent of them from unemployed professionals. So far this year in Prince George's, the county's Consumer Protection Commission has received 656 queries about collectors, an increase of 70 percent, according to special investigator Annie Jones.

"Often we just tell the caller about the federal law governing collectors and we never hear from them again," she says. "They just work something out on their own."

Nowadays, according to Motter, a bill collector has to be "patient and understanding," and be able to instill a bit of "self-awareness" in the debtor.

"This is the era of the consumer," he says. "You aren't gonna get a guy to pay a damn bill by browbeating him to death."

Consider the case that Motter handled recently of a married truck driver, a father of four children, who earned a good income but nevertheless had "a stack of unpaid bills a foot high." Motter said that the man at first was "quite antagonistic on the phone," but Motter said he eventually succeeded in convincing the driver and his wife to visit him at the office.

"They came in with their bills and I said I'd try to find a way to help them," he relates. "Well, we set aside this much for rent and food, and then put some away to take care of the bills. Then I said, 'You have this much leftover.' The guy looked at the figure and was shocked. He said, 'I'd have to give up my bowling! That's not enough leftover to bowl with.'

"He was a real good bowler, you see. Played several times a week. It was his passion, right? So I said to him, 'What's more important, fella? Taking care of your obligations or going bowling?' Well, he decided my plan was best, and a while later I called him up and asked how things were going. He said fine, he wasn't worrying about his bills anymore."

"See, you gotta use common sense," Motter concludes. "The guy's up on his bills and everything's great. Of course, he isn't bowling any more, either."

Motter's agency shares space on Frederick's West Patrick Street with several hardware and specialty shops, a few legal firms, a bar and grill, a motel, a boarded-up restuarant, two vacant buildings and a one-room agency run by a volunteer group that counsels unwed mothers.

The tools of his trade include a lot of writing stationery, telephones, telephone books, criss-cross directories and desk aliases: the fictitious names that collectors dream up and use to ensure their own privacy.

Motter, who has tracked down debtors as far away as Hawaii and Alaska, using an alias he won't reveal, says that the debt collection business is similar to that of a private eye: Time-consuming and wholly unglamourous. He employs 13 workers at the agency, seven of them women who are engaged full time as collectors.

"Men are too rough," he says. "I've found women to be better collectors because they use a little more heart."

And this is a time, he adds, that requires heart. Most of the agency's business, which serves Frederick County and upper Montgomery County, comes from hospitals and doctors.

"It's hard nowadays," he says. "With a woman who has had an operation and has kids to support, you don't want to be cruel. You set up a payment schedule she can handle."

Motter says that he handles the elderly with similar understanding.

"Say an old woman who owns a house suddenly has this huge medical bill and can't pay it," he explains. "What you do is put the case in the suspend action file. You tell the merchant to go to court, tie up the estate, and wait until the woman dies. Then you go ahead and clean the bill."

At the same time, Motter says, he has little sympathy for the "hard-core," people he calls "credit crooks" who never intend to pay their bills.

"They're no different than burglars, except they go in through the front door," he declares. "When you try to reason with them they always put you off until manana, crying the blues and giving you these huge crocodile tears."

He remembered one well-to-do woman who was faced with a $500 physician's bill that had been given over to the collection agency. Motter said the woman had returned to the doctor wearing a dress that was patched and had holes in it, and old weather-beaten shoes. Motter said that she wept, and convinced the doctor to accept her plan to pay $5 a month for the succeeding 100 months.

"Absolutely ridiculous," Motter fumed on recollection. "I don't know how it is down in the city, but up here, a lot of these doctors are too soft-hearted."

The collection business, Motter insists, contributes more to society than collectors are given credit for.

"We should be treated with as much respect as the cop on the street. We aren't shady characters and we don't persecute people," he says, before heading back to work amid a cacaphony of clacking typwriters and ringing telephones. "Last year, this agency put more than $600,000 back into the community. That's not peanuts, you know."