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Bill Bartmann Headshot

Make My Phone Stop Ringing and You Just Might End Up in the White House!

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They sound so clinical and dispassionate. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York just released updated statistics: "About $1.12 trillion of consumer debt is currently delinquent, with $824 billion seriously delinquent." The report includes a chart that provides additional facts: In 2000, about seven percent of U.S. consumers were subject to debt collection with an average amount owed of about $800. By the end of 2011, the number had grown to 14 percent of consumers, with an average amount owed of $1,400.

Let's now run that through a robot-to-human translator:

  • The targets for debt collectors have doubled in the last decade, and
  • The size of the targets on their backs has grown by 75 percent, which means...
  • The United States is one target-rich environment for debt collectors to continue to wreak their havoc.

If we regard the seven percent as sort of a baseline, that means we have a big new group of people who have entered the ranks of the "working humiliated." They're the ones who just a few years ago were donating to food banks, and now find themselves with no alternative but to get food from those same banks.

Whether it's due to losing a job or being overwhelmed by medical bills, the reason doesn't matter. Each night they study the contours of their kitchen table, trying to figure out how a declining income can cover bulging debts.

They have an open wound and at that very moment they get a dose of acid poured on it in the form of a phone call. In one case a debt collector called a woman who couldn't figure out how to pay for her daughter's funeral expenses. "They told me they were going to dig my daughter up and hang her from a tree if I didn't pay." Another laid-off person got a call at 2:57 a.m., saying, "If you refuse to answer the door to me I guarantee you that I will wake up every neighbor in your entire building, OK? And I'll let everybody know you don't know how to pay your bills."

We're in an election year, and voters everywhere are making their mental lists of top issues. This 14 percent represents tens of millions of voters. In fact, it's a larger group than all African Americans in the United States. At a time when politicians are in awe of the voting power of older Americans, here's a news flash: The 14 Percenters are an even larger group.

And let's talk about the ability to influence the electorate. This year both political parties will spend a total of over a billion dollars on catchy television commercials and polite, nicely scripted phone calls to voters. Compare those with the influence from getting this call one consumer received: "I will find your sister and your daughter, and I will find you, and I will mess you up. Goodbye." Not a day goes by when that same sort of message isn't reinforced over the phone, at work, on Facebook, or in court against millions of consumers and voters.

Meanwhile, the biggest debt-collection firms continue to dodge and weave past serious sanctions. One of them filed 425,000 lawsuits in a single year against consumers. And after being hauled into U.S. District Court in a lawsuit involving more than a million consumers as plaintiffs, the company was able to settle -- for a fine of $10 per consumer. Yet maybe I'm being too hard on that U.S. company. After all, it was recently named "One of the best places to work." In India.

After all, paying enforcers in the United States was cutting into profits. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott should be applauded for taking matters into their own hands and filing separate suits against that company for "robo-signing" violations. Richard Cordray of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has announced special inspections of the biggest debt collectors, and not a moment too soon.

James Carville became famous for focusing Bill Clinton's campaign staff by declaring, "It's the economy, stupid." This current election year represents a real opportunity for people running for office -- or wanting to stay in one -- to outline truly bold steps to shut down the abuse. The message from the 14 Percenters could not be clearer or more succinct: "Make my phone stop ringing."

Bill Bartmann is CEO of CFS II, a debt-collection company. His companies have helped to settle debts of more than 4.5 million people without ever filing suit against a customer.

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