Among all the consumer protections that legislators extended to Americans during the pandemic, relief from debt collection was not one of those. While emergency laws have allowed people to put out certain forms of debt, e.g. student loans and mortgages, in tolerance, people whose debt took other forms – such as credit card, car and payday loans – did not have legal protections. Debt collection quietly he sang long as the pandemic caused mass death, disease and unemployment.
Not only have collection companies continued to operate in the last year, but they have also offsoured labor to labor markets at lower costs as the unemployment rate in the United States has increased. BuzzFeed News spoke to a person who worked in Tijuana, Mexico, office of an American third-party collection company. He asked to be identified with a pseudonym to protect his identity. “Rick,” who is 20 years old and a Mexican citizen, said that for 10 hours a day, he logged into an automated calling system that made agents like him go through hundreds of calls, back to back. He remembered trying to exploit money from people who simply didn’t have it, and even a person who was being treated in the hospital for the coronavirus. “I feel bad because I still have my debts,” he said. Earlier this year, it stopped.
Here is Rick’s story, which has been edited for clarity and length.
I was out of work in 2020 because I changed little here in Tijuana. I saw a job posting on Facebook, and I had some friends who were working there who said I was recruiting for customer service and collections. The ad made it look like this was a customer service job because you need to have a customer service experience. It wasn’t until I started training that they said we were going to be picked up by people who called and tried to make payments. And when we have more experience, we make calls to customers. I didn’t know it.
I was a little kicked out of it because I wasn’t really ahead with it. I had worked for call centers before, but for customer service, not collections. So it was a little scary for me. But he needed the job. So I tried my best. We only had two weeks to learn everything in training. Since English is not the first language for some of us (my first language is Spanish), we need to learn new words like “return” and “balloon payment” and what an entrepreneur I am. he is a creditor. So it was interesting and challenging at the same time.
I will go to 6 o’clock and work for 10 hours a day to 4 hours after noon Because of COVID, we are sitting two seats next to each other. We always had to have our face masks on. There were about 90 agents on the team.
We have a system that is always called by itself for the whole day. The account number automatically pops up on the screen, and we have access to the account. But the composition does not take more than 30 seconds, so we would have a minute or less to see their information and how much they should. We just have to log in and start the call without knowing much about the history of the account. Sometimes the system just connected to us and people would say, “Hello? Hello?” I don’t feel ready to care about something so important with so little time to prepare. It’s definitely something that should be improved because people work bad times.
Typically, the system would call more than 200 calls a day, back to back. Most of them have not responded. I talk to about 50 people a day. All customers were based in the United States. These were mainly personal loans and car loans. If I needed to go to the bathrooms or if I needed a break, I could put in a feature to stop receiving calls, even if the supervisors didn’t like it that way.
We don’t really have a control over how many times we actually call a customer. We don’t have a system to know. Sometimes a person receives 10 calls, and they are aggravated by it. Sometimes we would reconnect with the same person one day, and we would have to pretend not to know or apologize to them.
Once, my partner called a person and she was really crazy. She said she had received at least 20 phone calls that day and that she would not pay, which was over. He was actually in the hospital. She said she had actually lost her husband to COVID, and was now in hospital with COVID receiving oxygen and in very poor condition. But really, someone else might have tried to get in touch with her two hours later, and the next day, because, once again, there’s really not much we could do about the calls.
There are some metrics I wanted to meet. But it wasn’t about how much money we raised. A quality assurance agent branded us on our “customer service”. They were trained to evaluate our calls. We had our scripts, and there were some scripts that we needed to say word for word, verbatim. So they valued the customer service we provided mainly accordingly; if you miss only one word, for example, then you get a zero. I did well.
In our scripts, we first go through the verification process. When it was time to pick up, the consumer explained the situation, as due to COVID or lack of work, they were not able to pay. You would have to try at least twice to get a payment. We may offer some refund, for example, or perhaps a payment plan. On a normal day, more than half of the people I spoke to couldn’t afford anything. Zero dollars.
It feels bad because I still have my debts. I also have things to pay for. So trying to make them pay wasn’t easy for me. Even without the pandemic, it is difficult to demand money. But it’s more of a challenge when you know everyone is going through something that has affected many people. I feel a little guilty asking people for money – but at the same time, we just have to keep going with our work. We are not busy trying to help [the consumer]; we were about to arrive, and it was something our supervisors reminded us of throughout the experience.
My pay was around 3000 Mexican pesos [$150] per week. We are really close to San Diego, so we tend to have a higher rental cost here. So, I mean, I’m able to survive with this. It’s nothing compared to someone who went to college. But honestly, I know that since it’s an American company, they could pay more.
The work was mainly people who are angry with you because you are disturbing them and trying to pick them up. Because of my experience working in call centers since the age of 17, I was a little accustomed to people yelling at me. But it’s hard at the end of the day; it’s hard for someone to yell at you and tell you bad things. I left my job as a debt collector in February. I would love to do something else. I think the reason I still work for a call center now is because I’m used to it. And they actually pay better than other employees, since they are American companies. ●