A: third-party debt collection. Third-party debt collectors take over the accounts of very, very delinquent credit card customers - people who haven't paid a bill in more than 200 days. Trying to recover money from them is not easy. Our Planet Money reporter Alex Blumberg talked with a third-party debt collector about what that job is like.
ALEX BLUMBERG: In the nearly three years that John Goebel has worked in debt collections, calling people on the phone to try to get them to pay their overdue bills, he says the responses break down into three categories - none of them good.
BLUMBERG: Maybe 60 percent anger - if not more, maybe 75; 10 or 20 percent, just complete apathy. And then you don't typically hear the sadness unless you stop and talk with somebody. And then you kind of watch them unfold and kind of break down, which may happen maybe, I would say, 10 percent of the time.
BLUMBERG: I mean, how often, when you're doing this, do you have people just break down and cry on the phone?
BLUMBERG: Oh, I mean, I would say at least once a week.
BLUMBERG: Keep in mind, John's part time now. When he was full time, it happened almost daily. John works in a cubicle, wearing a telephone headset attached to automated dialer, which weeds out busy signals and voice mail.
And he tries to avoid getting into the sad stuff with people, partially because if at the end of a long, 40-minute story the person still doesn't pay anything, well, John's not doing his job. But that's only one reason.
BLUMBERG: The emotional part of it, it drags you down. I mean, it's very hard to - if somebody breaks down and pours their life out to you, and then, you know, you work out something or you don't work out something, the second you hang up that call, you have maybe five seconds until the next call picks up, depending on how fast the dialer's moving. You might only have five seconds. Somebody else is there, and you've got to talk to them.
It's very hard to just flip that off and then start talking to the next person. So I think it's almost a defense mechanism. You know, you kind of turn off some - you have to turn off some part of you, that you can't put yourself in everybody's shoes.
BLUMBERG: John says there are cases where he feels bad, like the guy whose son committed suicide, his wife left him, his business failed. He says in situations like that, he just apologizes, hangs up the phone, doesn't try for any money.
But he says when you have people yelling at you all day long, it doesn't put you in a very charitable frame of mind. He's had people curse at him, lie to him.
BLUMBERG: Maybe they'll give their phone to their kid and have their kid talk to me.
BLUMBERG: Wait. Somebody gave the phone to their kid and had their kid...
BLUMBERG: It happens all the time. They'll have their kids answer the phone. And I've had people in the background say, say I'm not here, or tell him to go to hell. And I'll have what sounds like 6-year-olds saying this.
BLUMBERG: John works this job on top of his day job, to help pay off his student loans. He himself has a credit card with a balance. But these days, he hardly ever uses it, unlike some of his buddies from college.
John says he wouldn't be surprised if one of them turned up on his automated dialer one day. He sees debt a little like a drug. The benefits - a new flat- screen TV, say - happen immediately, but the consequences don't show up for months, or even years. Credit cards can be dangerous. And a lot of people he talks to don't really understand how they work.
BLUMBERG: There's such a knowledge gap. If you don't understand how compounding interest works or even just simple interest, if you don't understand how that works, should you have a credit card that, you know, uses the, you know, 60-day average balance and it's a revolving line of credit? I mean, that's a little bit more complicated than that.
BLUMBERG: Right now, explaining how this stuff actually works falls to people like John. By the time it gets to him, it's probably too late.
For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.
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