Among all consumer protections that lawmakers extended to Americans during the pandemic, debt collection relief was not one of them. While emergency laws allowed people to incur some forms of debt like student loans and mortgages in the forbearance, people whose debt took other forms – such as credit cards, car loans and payday loans – had no legal protection. Debt collection quietly hummed because the pandemic has caused massive deaths, illnesses and unemployment.
Not only were the collecting societies still operating during the past year, but they were also offshoring work to lower-cost labor markets as the unemployment rate in the United States skyrocketed. BuzzFeed News spoke to someone who worked in the Tijuana, Mexico office of a third-party U.S. collection company. He requested to be identified under a pseudonym to protect his identity. “Rick,” 20, a Mexican citizen, said that for 10 hours a day he logged into an automated call system that made hundreds of calls to agents like him, back to back . He remembered trying to extract money from people who just didn’t have it, and even someone who was being treated in hospital for the coronavirus. “It hurts because I also have my debts,” he said. Earlier this year, he resigned.
Here is Rick’s story, which has been edited for clarity and length.
i was unemployed in 2020 because I recently moved here to Tijuana. I saw a job posting on Facebook and I had friends working there who said it was recruiting for customer service and collections. The ad made it seem like it was a customer service job because you needed to have customer service experience. It wasn’t until I started the training that they said we were going to collect from the people calling and trying to make payments. And when we had more experience, we would call customers. I did not know.
I was a little taken aback by this because they weren’t really at the forefront. Before, I worked for call centers, but for customer service, not for collections. So it was a little scary for me. But I needed the job. So I did my best. We only had two weeks to learn everything in training. Since English is not the first language for some of us (my mother tongue is Spanish), we had to learn new words like “carry over” and “pay by balloon” and what is. a borrower and a creditor. So it was interesting and stimulating at the same time.
I would come in at 6 a.m. and work 10 hours a day until 4 p.m. Because of COVID, we were sitting two seats apart. We always had to wear our masks. There were about 90 agents on the team.
We have a system that always dials on its own throughout the day. The account number automatically appears on the screen and we would have access to the account. But dialing doesn’t take more than 30 seconds, so we would have a minute or less to see their info and how much they owed. We just had to go in and start the call without knowing much about the account history. Sometimes the system would just log us in and people would already say, “Hello? Hello? “I didn’t feel ready to take on something so important with so little time to prepare. It’s definitely something they should improve on because people are going through difficult times.
Typically, the system would dial over 200 calls per day, back to back. Most of them did not respond. I was talking to about 50 people a day. All of the clients were based in the United States. These were mainly personal loans and auto loans. If I needed to go to the bathroom or needed a break, I could make it a point to stop receiving calls, even if the supervisors didn’t quite like it.
We don’t really have control over how many times we actually call a customer. We don’t have a system to find out. Sometimes a person would get 10 calls, and they were aggravated by it. Sometimes we relate to the same person in a day and have to pretend we don’t know or apologize to them.
My coworker called someone once, and she was really angry. She said she had received at least 20 calls that day, and that she was not going to pay, that she was done. She was actually in the hospital. She said she actually lost her husband to COVID, and now she was in the hospital with COVID receiving oxygen and in very poor condition. But really, someone else would probably try to get in touch with her two hours later, and the next day, because, again, there really wasn’t much we could do about the calls.
There are certain measures that we had to respect. But it wasn’t about how much money we raised. A quality assurance agent rated us on our “customer service”. They have been trained to assess our calls. We had our scripts, and there were scripts that we had to say verbatim, verbatim. So they rated the customer service we provided primarily based on that; if you missed a single word, for example, you would get a zero. I was fine.
In our scripts, you go through the verification process first. When it was time to recover, the consumer would explain the situation, for example due to COVID or not working, he was not able to pay. You would have to try at least twice to get a payout. We could come up with a deferral, for example, or maybe a payment plan. On a normal day, more than half of the people I spoke to couldn’t pay anything. Zero dollar.
It hurts because I also have my debts. I also have things to pay. So trying to get them to pay wasn’t easy for me. Even without a pandemic, it’s hard to ask for money. But it’s more of a challenge when you know that everyone is going through something that has affected a lot of people. I felt a little guilty about asking people for money – but at the same time, we just had to get on with our work. We didn’t get involved in trying to help [the consumer]; we were just there to collect, and this is something our supervisors reminded us of throughout the experience.
My salary was around 3,000 Mexican pesos [$150] per week. We are very close to San Diego so we tend to have a higher rent here. So, I mean, I am able to survive with this. It’s nothing compared to someone who went to college. But, honestly, I know that since this is an American company, they might be paying more.
The job was mostly to get people mad at you for bothering them and trying to collect. Due to my experience working in call centers since I was 17, I was a bit used 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 say mean things to you. I quit my job as a debt collector in February. I would like to do something else. I think the reason I still work for a call center now is because I’m used to it. And in fact, he pays better than other jobs because they are American companies. ●