People – at least those more or less sane – hate it when someone intrudes into their private life or attacks them verbally. Over the past thirty years, we have successfully internalized those foreign-sounding concepts – personal space, private territory, privacy. We never learned about them at school. Our parents didn’t teach us that, either, as they knew nothing about it. That knowledge was acquired and internalized much later. Still, sometimes we’re made to forget – for no good reason – about our personal space, private territory or even the presumption of innocence.
Someone rang my doorbell a few days ago. The ringing was insistent and uncomfortable. I opened the door, expecting an agent to read the meter in my house. But I saw, instead, two well-built young men standing at the threshold.
“Does Oleh Volodymyrovych live with his father?” they asked. At first, I didn’t understand who they were talking about.
“I don’t know,” I said. People who don’t introduce themselves or don’t bother to explain what on earth they need from me deserve nothing more but an answer like that.
“How come you don’t know?” one of the men demanded. “They live next door.”
“I don’t know,” I repeated.
“Are you blind or something?”
“I am,” I said and shut the door.
In half an hour, I went out shopping. Opening the door, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Huge black-and-yellow stickers with my neighbor’s name and the word “Wanted!” on them were stuck to the doors of all apartments on my floor. A telephone number was typed at the bottom, so I could call someone should I come across that “dangerous criminal.” At first, I thought that the police did it. It was weird, though, as my bespectacled neighbor looked nothing like a jailbird hiding from the police.
In the evening, it turned out that the police had nothing to do with that. It was debt collectors. A lady who lived next door and I tried to scrape those damn stickers off, with our fingernails, dishcloths, brushes. Those guys did a good job with their stickers. It turned out that Oleh had borrowed a “whopping” one thousand hryvnias – forty dollars! – from some obscure bank and failed to pay it back on time. The bank had delegated the debt collection to an agency. So, those two musclemen came to make my neighbor pay this formidable sum. I didn’t even try to figure out a despicable fee they were supposed to get between them – minus the cost of stickers – if they collected that thousand.
My neighbor and I scraped the stickers off, laughing, not angry at all. We didn’t pick a fight with Oleh, though the collectors must have expected just that when they smeared his neighbors’ doors with their shit.
I’ve got a first-hand knowledge of semi-criminal methods of collection agencies, as well as a rich, diverse experience of communicating with them. I’ve heard it all – foul language, clauses of the criminal code rattled off, promises “to come up and have a word,” but first things first: I never had any debt in collections. It just happened so that one goddamn day ten years ago I bought a SIM card with a new number. For two weeks, everything was alright. But then the floodgates opened, and the river of shit covered me head to toe. It turned out that my SIM card, the one I’d bought legitimately from a mobile network operator, had previously belonged to a debtor. I will remember her name until the end of my miserable life. The debt collectors sledge-hammered this information into my head.
Sometimes, conversations with those agents resembled absurd dialogues in Lewis Carroll’s style:
“Do you know Valentyna Ivanivna?”
“No, I don’t.”
“But she gave us this number.”
“So, what can I do about it?”
“Well, what about paying off her debt?”
One week, I wouldn’t get a single call from the agents, while the next one my phone would be ringing off the hook. Sometimes, a real collector – a human being – called me, demanding something in a rude tone, but usually, I got automated phone calls. It was the worst thing imaginable – Sunday, eight o’clock in the evening, a phone call: “…don’t provide information about a debtor to a collection agency…debt recovery according to the Criminal Code… covering up a debtor… pay back the money you owe…”
At first, I blacklisted those numbers. It was a pointless Sisyphean task, though. I had no idea how many numbers one collection agency could have, but I strongly suspected they got no less than a few hundred.
I hung up on them. I tried to be rude to them, too. Once, I even dumped a long quite well-put verbal construction made of slang, jargon, taboo words, and other phrases that scare the publishers away. That was all a waste of time. After a decade of debt collectors’ attacks, I finally pinned down a formula – the more concise and clear your response is, the more seldom their calls get.
“Do you know Valentyna Ivanivna?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Probably she used to live next door or work with you?”
“No, I don’t know and never knew someone like that.”
“How long have you had this phone number?”
“For ten years.”
That’s how a perfect conversation sounds like. Should you hang up on them or yell obscenities, they’d set up an automatic ringback. This is the worst. An automated system would call you up every minute, nagging you: “Pay back the money you owe! Pay back the money you owe!”
Once I asked an agent who seemed rather sane what I could do to stop getting their calls. “Change your phone number,” he said. It turned out that they deleted a number from their database only after a debtor paid off the amount they owed. If I talked to them politely but didn’t change my number, they’d keep calling me regularly. I managed the advertising department in a television company back then, so it was too inconvenient to change my phone number, as too many colleagues and clients knew it.
A few months ago, one of my friends with a history of working for a collection agency told me that some people – mostly retired women (the richest group of the population, to be sure!) – sometimes they paid back the debts of total strangers. Desperate, they were eager to pay their own money just so the agents left them alone.
She told me to treat those calls like practical jokes. To call, to remind, to nag, to threaten – there’s only so much the collectors can do. They can’t do anything more.
Far above our heads, above the clouds that bring us fall showers, there must be corridors lined with offices – the celestial bureaucracy. Its clerks know for sure who can relax at the end of the day, and who should not even think about it. They send down nightmares, gas inspectors, and muscular debt collectors in sportswear onto us, the sinners, to remind us that some things have to be earned. No rest for the wicked! It’s too early to think about that.
I changed my phone number three months ago. No one calls me asking about Valentyna Ivanivna anymore. I must have interfered with my own destiny, broken my penance, or compensated for my misdoings with my nerves. It’s anyone’s guess. In any case, none of you, my dear readers, is on the safe ground when it comes to debt collection. It’s not something you can plan or foresee – collectors can just call you out of the blue. Patience and a good sense of humor – that’s all we can wish for. Let’s wish for it right now – in advance, so to speak – saying, our heads turned toward the sky: “Thank you that it’s nothing more than that.”