The Problem With Trying To 'Outsmart Collectors'

August 1st, 2014

On the Money section of their web site this week, Time Magazine ran an article entitled: "9 Ways to Outsmart Debt Collectors."

The approach of the article makes sense, as the Buzzfeed culture of the internet is such that people love lists and countdowns. In that sense, all this was missing was a slideshow. Unfortunately the title of the article, the headline that is worth clicking, implies that debt collections is always combative. It suggests that it is always "you vs. them" and that there are ways to fight back and get around the issue at hand.

The article itself provides a number of useful bits of information and tips for consumers, especially those who might not be familiar with the collections process. It seems reasoable to say that the article would be better served to focus on those substantive points rather than forcing a connection between actual repayment strategies and the idea one has to "outsmart" collectors who are "always the enemy."

Up at the top of the page, one might also note that the URL of the article, a significant aspect of search engine hits, reads as "debt-collection-repayment-negotiating-strategies." How big is the disconnect between "repayment strategies" and "ways to outsmart" collections? One suggests a legitimate path to follow, the other suggests a shortcut or a tactic to win some sort of game. What does it say that the site's apparent hope for this article was that people will come to it by searching the internet for ways to get out of debt?

The good tips in the article include bullet points about the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), steps to dispute and validate debt, and the importance of knowing other state and national laws. Those are all good, and they fit in this kind of article because consumer education will always be important.

Some of the unfortunate tips, however, those that fall more under the column of the "outsmarting" tips, rely on broad, sweeping, and inaccurate claims. For example:

When a debt collector calls, he’s trying to assess your ability to pay and may attempt to get you to say or agree to things you shouldn’t.

To suggest that all debt collectors are trying to trick consumers or talk them into a corner is not useful advice, nor is it true.

Under another tip in the article, the author offers the following:

4. Resist the Scare Tactics

Some debt collectors may try a range of tricks to get you to pay up, but it’s important to know your rights.

To support the point about scare tactics and "tricks" being a common occurrence, a hyperlink to a story is offered as support. Just one problem: that article is over four years old, and it is actually just the "confessions" of a single former collector. That is hardly evidence that this is an industry-wide problem, and it is irresponsible to suggest as much.

Don't misunderstand, because it is crucial for consumers to know their options if a collector is abusive. The important distinction that should be drawn, however, is that such cases are outliers and not a normal thing to expect. In order to provide that valuable information for consumers, there are sites available such as Ask Doctor Debt.

Consumers absolutely have a right to know what they should do if collectors are dishonest or abusive; they just also have the right to learn that information in a more fair and accurate context.

We need more national coverage that informs consumers about their rights and about the collections process. What we don't need, however, is articles that suggest it is some sort of combative game where one side is trying to outwit the other. We need articles that acknowledge the fact that the majority of agencies try to work together with consumers, complete with information about how consumers can then do their part to get out of debt.

Source: 9 Ways to Outsmart Debt Collectors (Time.com)