NEWS

Banks resort to bullyboy debt-collecting firms

The village is in Aitoloakarnania’s tobacco-farming belt, where local residents are engaged in what is fast becoming one of the country’s forgotten professions. The resulting financial straits in which most households find themselves, coupled with strong pressure from advertising campaigns for consumer loans and credit cards, has led many families into the dangerous world of indebtedness to banks, which are only too eager to ensnare an increasing number of people seeking funds to pay off their desire for a better life – that is, right up until it is time to start paying back, and when no ready cash is available. And when pressure from the banks themselves is not enough, professional debt-collectors are called in to exert more effective measures. Earlier this year, debt collectors who arrived in this particular village of Aitoloakarnania, their strapping bodies clad in smart suits, their expression as cold as their tone of voice – in short, true to stereotype – went into action with an initial visit which, when unsuccessful, was followed by a second, more threatening one. It is when the third visit became necessary that insults and unfounded threats of court action began. In this particular case, the farmers, used to living in fear of banks and their representatives for decades, felt that this time the boundaries had been overstepped. They beat up the debt collectors, hurled insults of their own and threw them bodily out of the village. «The banks played down the incident,» local eyewitnesses told Kathimerini. «They want to present themselves to the world as benevolent foundations. But incidents like these will happen elsewhere, because the situation in the provinces is worse than in Athens. People in the countryside are more gullible and fall more easily into traps, just as they did with the stock market.» In Athens, stories of abusive behavior by debt collectors, albeit more moderate than the above, are heard daily. The behavior ranges from strong psychological blackmail at home to the declared intent to blacken the person’s name. One woman complained to a consumer protection service that on one day alone she received 28 telephone calls at her home from a debt collector. Another said that every time she is three days late in paying a loan installment, the debt collectors call her office to inform her boss. A common tactic is to let everyone else in the apartment building know when loan payments are three months late. The collector begins ringing the other tenants’ doorbells, demanding that they tell the person in question that he or she owes the particular amount to the bank the collector represents. Personal threats, humiliation in the neighborhood and at work are not a Greek invention, naturally. Nor is the profession of debt collector. Abroad, debt collection companies are legal institutions with large turnovers and profits that have made them attractive to stock exchanges. Their activities are not restricted to such brutal behavior as that described above; over time, their tactics have become more refined. However, the sector has burgeoned abroad in the past five years, around the same time that the profession appeared in Greece. In Greece, these firms range from subsidiaries of multinational suppliers of electronic equipment to banks to major insurance companies. In another such company, the major shareholder is a subsidiary of the National Bank. In another, it is a private bank. In short, debt-collecting companies in Greece are more or less linked with the banks; that is why the particular activity is known as «outsourcing debt collection.» The head of the debts department in a major bank described the banks’ new tactics as follows: «As you are aware, delayed payments are dealt with by the legal service after a certain period of time. At some point, banks noticed that the number of these clients had begun to rise considerably. And as it is not in the bank’s interest to have too many clients involved with its legal service, it began to use debt-collecting firms. In our case, these firms had their staff telephone customers from the bank’s premises. These telephonists were young people, aged 20-25, who had had no training in this kind of work and were frequently rude to customers. I reprimanded them, but to no avail. As a result, we lost good customers as well. One usually allows a good customer, a business owner, some time. You do not treat them the same way as you do a minor customer. These telephonists treated everyone the same way.» According to the owner of one debt-collecting firm, people have to be pressured to pay. «I can’t know if people are really sick, or out of work, as they claim. I don’t care. All I know is that they have to pay,» she said. Desperate people who have no means of paying their debts usually resort to yet more loans, further compounding their debt, which at some point has to be paid, putting them in the rapidly growing category of people that the owner of another company said «we come across every day.» The director of the credit department of a large banking group referred to two other kinds of approach. «If a person who has been fired… finds another job within two months and starts repaying his debts, then he is a good customer. If he doesn’t find a job, he’ll be visiting his lawyer within six months, we will be seizing his house and he will be a bad customer. There is a gray zone, after the end of the second and before the beginning of the sixth month, where we try to manage clients with both in-house associates and outsourcing,» he said, adding that banks do not take a customer’s income statements into consideration when approving loans, as these statements are rarely representative of the person’s actual credit capacity. Perhaps the best response is that proposed by reputable British consumer protection organizations: to make an exception of those who can prove their inability to pay loan installments, since a number of surveys indicate that already one third of the population in the developed West has become over-indebted.