By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
NILES — On average, Myrna Hamilton makes between 175 to 200 phone calls a day.
The high volume of calls comes naturally to Hamilton, who has served as a debt collector for 36 years. That’s about 25 calls an hour – or one every 2.5 minutes.
Hamilton works at Creditors’ Service Bureau of Niles Inc., which is the only debt collection agency in Berrien County.
As a collector, Hamilton is tasked with doing the improbable. Call the people who have shied away from paying a bill – and get them to pay the overdue payment.
Accounts are turned into the agency from clients – who mostly come from the medical field, along with the occasional apartment complex – which are then passed along to the collectors who must regularly call people who owe the money.
It’s not the most rewarding job when accounting for a few angry callers mixed in with some avoidance.
“Sometimes it’s an insurance issue, but a lot of times, people just don’t have the money,” Hamilton said. “After so long, if people don’t pay the hospital it gets turned over to us and we have to collect the money.”
The Creditors’ Service Bureau of Niles fields Michigan and Indiana clients, but have made calls to those dodging bills as far away as Hawaii and Mexico.
Vicki Papczynski became the agency’s manager two years ago after spending 35 years in the legal field. She knows of the common misconceptions often attributed to collectors. But she said the public has the wrong idea.
“We’re pretty easy to work with. We’re not here to hurt anybody or cause anybody grief,” Papczynski said. “There are debt collectors out there like that, which gives people like us a bad name.”
After a client signs with the collection agency, special software is used to send messages to those who owe a bill. If that call is not returned, Papczynski said “her girls start calling.”
Often times, if individuals cannot be found or don’t respond, the debt will be moved to their credit report by the agency after 120 days.
Papczynski said more have been trying to dispute these claims in the hope it buys more time. However, one of the common excuses is identity theft.
“It gets hard for them to use that as an excuse when we have their physical signature and picture in the records,” Papczynski said.
The most extreme cases are labeled AEE, or All Efforts are Exhausted. This occurs when the person in question seems to have disappeared from the face of the Earth.
At that point, an automatic dialer is set up to leave messages. If the agency’s workers get caught up on other cases, they circle back around to the ones marked AEE.
Bills and dial telephones
Hamilton, a Niles native, began working at the collections agency after the boss’ daughter reached out to her.
“I’d never bill collected before. It was interesting to say the least,” Hamilton said, trying to recall her first year. “I don’t remember my first (collection), but the first couple I know were scary. You have somebody on the other line that is upset. I was so quiet and shy back then. That took some getting used to, but you learn quickly.”
At times, Hamilton said she and her coworkers feel more like peoples’ financial counselor or advisor, as opposed to a collector.
Each case varies, as some have gone on for years.
Hamilton said she gets to know these people well, especially if they are working toward paying off a $20,000 bill.
“You might not ever meet them, but it seems like they are your friends because you’ve been working with them so long,” she said.
When she started working at the collection agency more than three decades ago, Hamilton said they went to work on dial telephones. Back then she had to type her own lawsuits and complete all the legal material related to each case.
Now the agency is big enough to have its own legal department.
With all the changes over the years, there is one thing that remains constant.
Whenever she’s asked what she does for a living, Hamilton said the reaction is always the same.
“Everybody says, ‘I don’t know how you can do it,’” Hamilton said. “I’ve just done it for so long. I sympathize with everybody’s case individually. You have the occasional person who is very rude. Really rude, because since you are a bill collector, they hate you immediately before they even start talking to you. But most of the time people are understanding.”
No calls please
Not every conversation is white and black. Some fit in between the emotional spectrum. Hamilton recalled a particularly embarrassing exchange between a man who said he had no hospital bill.
The man told Hamilton he didn’t remember his service statement, so she put him on hold and printed off his statement to tell him why he was being charged.
“I looked at (the hospital bill) and saw it was about STDs,” Hamilton said. “When I called him, he must have remembered what it was for because right away he said, ‘I’m just going to pay that bill.’ I was already embarrassed, so I was glad he spared me that conversation. That’s actually happened a couple of times.”
Hamilton said it can get pretty tough talking with people she’s supposed to be tracking down, including some of the more elderly people who aren’t able to pay.
“Those can be really sad sometimes,” she said. “Years ago, I can remember this old man who always paid me $5 a month, every single month. He was from way out of town. He always paid it faithfully.”
When he didn’t pay it one month, Hamilton reached out to him expecting the worst. She discovered the old man was on his last can of spam, trying to feed himself.
However, there have been times when she’s also felt duped.
“One time a guy did tell me his father passed away, but he didn’t,” Hamilton said, shaking her head. “I had been so sad for this guy because I had been working with them for years.”
She said one letter sent to her has stuck with her for quite some time.
It encompassed a warped reputation that is attributed to collectors, which Hamilton and her coworkers have continuously denounced.
“This letter went on about how ‘you guys are eating steaks and drinking your champagne, and we’re over here eating our Hamburger Helper and drinking Kool-Aid,’” Hamilton said. “The person who wrote that believes we’re hoity-toity here, but I probably had that to eat last night.”
More often than not, Hamilton and her fellow collectors take those calls home with them.
Hamilton said in many instances, she just wants to shut down her brain for a while after work. Ironically, that includes avoiding phone calls at home.
“It’s not just sitting at the desk. It’s not just calling and asking for money. It’s exhausting,” Hamilton said. “You work through people’s finances and family deaths. We’re nice to work with, but it can be a mental strain on our end too.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 1, 2017)