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Pay up!

Ashley Milne-Tyte May 9, 2007

Pay up!

Ashley Milne-Tyte May 9, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: We mentioned the Fed’s report on consumer credit earlier this week. Suffice it to say on average we’re all carrying pretty hefty balances on our plastic. It’s never a pleasant thing being in debt. But owing money has recently become more of a problem for those who are chronically late with their payments.

Time was when debt collectors would periodically pull your credit report, just to see if anything had changed that might make it easier for them track you down. In this electronic age, though, they don’t have to do that anymore. Ashley Milte Tyte reports.

ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: Long Islander Dorothea DeTrinis loved to shop. She had a good job as a teacher earning $60,000 a year. As well buying clothes for herself, she lent money to family and splurged on gifts for her 29 nieces and nephews. Twenty thousand dollars in credit card debt didn’t seem so bad.

DOROTHEA DETRINIS: That plastic! And there is a power trip, you know, when you whip out the card. This gold card, like “I’ve got the gold card,” ya know.

But in 2003, suffering from depression, DeTrinis quit her teaching job. Later, she started working from home for a Web-based marketing company. Her new bosses told her she’d need to fork out a lot in business expenses up front — but she’d earn it all back, and then some.

DeTrinis racked up $90,000 more on her cards before concluding the company was a scam. She tried to reach minimum payment deals with her creditors, but they quickly handed her over to debt collectors.

DETRINIS: It became where I live home with my folks, and we can’t pick up the phone, because we don’t know if it’s gonna be a collector on the other end.

Some debtors may be getting more phone calls than usual, thanks to a new electronic service aimed at debt collectors. It’s called “Collection Triggers,” and it’s being marketed by credit bureau Experian.

Here’s how it works: Software mines Experian’s rich trove of data on consumers. If it finds information indicating that someone’s ability to pay off their debt has improved, it triggers a quick notice to debt collectors, and they pick up the phone.

Joe Ridout is with the group Consumer Action. He says Experian’s using odd criteria to decide whether someone is better able to make inroads into their debt.

JOE RIDOUT: Experian considers one of their three criteria listed whether you have open funds on a bank card. In other words, they’re encouraging people to pay one form of debt with credit card debt. And they’re encouraging financial irresponsibility on the part of debtors, rather than trying to help people get back on their feet.

But Experian’s Dan Buell doesn’t see it that way. He says the company’s product is perfectly legit. It abides by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which governs the way consumers’ personal data can be accessed and used. And, he says:

DAN BUELL: The thing to remember is that this is a valid debt that was incurred. And oftentimes — particularly in a post-judgment situation — this was a debt that was vetted with an objective third party, being the court. So this is a logistical business exchange.

An exchange between Experian and the debt collectors, he says, that lets the collectors determine which accounts are worth pursuing.

Michael McAuliffe is president of the Family Credit Counseling Service, and a former debt collector himself. He says he doesn’t see these services as unfair, but rather as unfortunate.

MICHAEL MCAULIFFE: Certainly unfortunate for consumers, ’cause now consumers who are in a position to begin getting their debt back under control are gonna have to really think hard and long about whether or not they’re ready to do it now — when the ramifications could be every additional collector comin’ after ’em, you know, within 24 to 48 hours.

Still, he says, it’s natural for debt collectors to go for a service that lets them focus on debtors who are trying to make changes in their lives. In other words, consumers who are likely to pay up,

MCAULIFFE: These are high-commission people. Collection agencies have a very high turnover on their staff. We have people who work for us that have worked at collection agencies. One of ’em, you couldn’t get your desk chair until you made your first . . . got your first check by phone for the day.

So, he says, any product that lets collectors home in on the money is likely to be a hit.

In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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