Among all consumer protections that lawmakers have extended to Americans during the pandemic, debt relief was not one of them. Although emergency laws allowed people to put in certain forms of debt such as student loans i mortgages in the case of tolerance, people whose debt had other forms, such as credit card, car, and payday loans, had no legal protection. Debt collection quietly he hummed along as the pandemic caused mass deaths, disease and unemployment.
Collection companies not only operated over the past year, but also relocated labor to lower-cost labor markets as the unemployment rate soared in the United States. BuzzFeed News spoke to a person who worked in the office in Tijuana, Mexico, of an American third-party collections company. He asked to be identified with a pseudonym to protect his identity. “Rick,” who is 20 and a Mexican citizen, said he logged in for 10 hours a day on an automated calling system that streamlined agents like him through hundreds of calls. He recalled trying to extract money from people who simply didn’t have it, and even from a person who was being treated in the hospital for the coronavirus. “It feels bad because I also have my debts,” he said. He quit smoking earlier this year.
Here is the story of Rick, which has been edited for clarity and length.
I was unemployed in 2020 because I recently moved here to Tijuana. I saw a job post on Facebook and had some friends working on it and saying they were hiring customer service and bills. The ad made it look like it was a customer service because you needed to have customer service experience. It wasn’t until I started training that they said we would charge for people who called and tried to make payments. And when we had more experience, we would make calls to customers. I did not know.
I was a little baffled by this because they weren’t really in front. I used to work for call centers, but for customer service, not for charges. So it scared me a little. But he needed the job. So I tried my best. We only had two weeks to learn everything in training. Because English is not the first language for some of us (my first language is Spanish), we needed to learn new words like “deferral” and “balloon payment” and what borrowers and creditors are. So it was interesting and challenging at the same time.
I would come in at 6 in the morning and work 10 hours a day until 4 in the afternoon. Because of COVID, we sat in two seats next to each other. We always had to wear masks. There were about 90 agents on the team.
We have a system that always scores for itself 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’d have a minute or less to see your information and how much they owed. We should just log in and start the call without knowing much about the account history. Sometimes the system would just connect us and people would already say, “Hello? Hello?” I didn’t feel ready to take care of something so important with so little time to prepare. Undoubtedly, this is something that should be improved because people are going through bad times.
Typically, the system would dial more than 200 calls a day, back to back. Most did not respond. I would talk to about 50 people a day. All customers were based in the US. These were mainly personal loans and car loans. If I needed to go to the bathroom or if I needed a break, I could put myself in a function to stop receiving calls, even though the supervisors didn’t like it at all.
We really have no control over how many times we actually call a customer. We don’t have a system to know. Sometimes a person received ten calls and this was aggravated. Sometimes we would reconnect with the same person in one day and we would have to pretend we didn’t know them or apologize.
Once, my partner called a person and she was very crazy. He said he had received at least 20 calls that day and was not going to pay, which was already over. He was actually in the hospital. She said she had actually lost her husband due to COVID and that she was now in the hospital with COVID receiving oxygen and in very poor condition. But really, someone else would probably try to contact her two hours later, and the next day, because, again, we really can’t do much with the calls.
There are some metrics we need to follow. But it wasn’t about the amount of money we raised. A quality assurance agent got us our “customer service”. They were trained to evaluate our calls. We had our scripts, and there were some scripts that we had to say word for word, verbatim. Therefore, they evaluated the customer service we provided primarily accordingly; for example, if only one word was missing, you would get a zero. He was doing well.
In our scripts, you must first go through the verification process. When it came time to charge, the consumer explained the situation, as because of COVID or not working he could not pay. We should try at least twice to get a payment. We could offer some deferral, for example, or maybe a payment plan. On a normal day, more than half of the people I talked to couldn’t afford anything. Zero dollars.
It feels bad because I also have my debts. I also have things to pay for. So trying to get them to pay was not easy for me. Even without the pandemic, it is difficult to ask for money. But it’s more of a challenge when you know everyone is going through something that has affected a lot of people. I felt a little guilty asking people for money, but at the same time, we had to keep up our work. We didn’t get involved trying to help [the consumer]; we were just there to pick it up, and that’s something our supervisors reminded us of throughout the experience.
My salary was about 3,000 Mexican pesos [$150] per week. We are very close to San Diego, so we tend to have a higher rental cost here. So, I mean, I can survive with that. It’s nothing compared to someone who went to college. But honestly, I know that because it’s an American company, they could pay more.
The job was mostly to get people angry with you for bothering them and trying to charge. Because of my experience working in call centers since I was 17, I was a little used to people calling me. But in the end it’s hard; it’s hard for someone to call you and tell you bad things. 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 it actually pays better than other jobs, as they are American companies. ●
This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Money Week series that looks at how the pandemic changed the ways we earn, owe, spend, and save money.