LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - The phone rings ... You look at the caller ID, and you just know. It's them again. You had that medical bill that slipped through the cracks and now a bill collector has been calling and calling.
Maybe it was a mix-up. Maybe it was your mistake. No matter what, that phone conversation is going to be uncomfortable. But even though they can be annoying, the person on the other end of the line is a human.
And THV11's Rolly Hoyt has one of those humans, Chris Dunkum of First Collection Services, explain how they can help. And he can tell it to us straight.
Rolly Hoyt: How long have you been in this business?
Chris Dunkum: Since birth. My parents started the company in 1969 and my brother and I both started working in our teens.
RH: So you never had to deal with the stigma of the job?
CD: It helps growing up in it. My friends like to mess with me about it.
RH: Tell it to me straight, Chris. What's your employee's mindset as they dial that phone and call somebody who's got an unpaid balance?
CD: First and foremost we understand that we're not calling bad people. We're calling people that have had a bad situation in their life that has gotten them behind.
RH: How many people work for you and who are your clients?
CD: We have 250 people here. We do a lot of utility companies from across the country and also a lot of medical clients.
RH: Those two providers starting off can be aggravating for consumers. So that must make it fun when you call.
CD: You don't want to hear the way that a lot of our people are talked to. It does get very strong. But we train everybody to calm things down. We know to speak softly. That calms them down. Also, it helps when we call people up in the northeast. They tend to be a little calmer when they hear our southern accents. They tell us they appreciate our “yes ma’am’s” and yes, sirs.”
RH: Now I wonder if it’s scary for a collector from the northeast when they call us here in the South. I wonder if that big city accent is a hindrance.
CD: I don’t know. Maybe that’s our edge.
RH: How do you get people to pay? What’s your leverage?
CD: Pretty please? I mean basically, that's it. There's not a lot of leverage today. We have to comply with the Fair Debt Collections Act, which is federal law. A lot of states restrict how often we can call. We can’t knowingly call at a time that is inconvenient. We have to determine when a good time to call is. It’s pretty tough.
RH: With all the robocalls and telemarketers, how much harder is your job?
CD: It’s hard. When we're calling a consumer we have to properly identify the consumer we're speaking with. We do that by a social security number that a lot of people are afraid to give over the phone. If you're questioning if this is real or not, ask them for the phone number that you can call them back. Most of the time a scammer is going to hang up right then. We never want to hang up on you. The longer we are talking the better chance that we can figure out a plan.
RH: Here’s another brash question: how do you make your money? Do you buy the debt from your clients and try to make money on the margin of whatever you collect?
CD: No, not at all. We do not buy debt. Our clients hire us because we’re good at working with customers. Most of our clients don’t want to lose these people as customers. A doctor doesn’t want to be losing patients because they forgot to pay a bill. Most of our customers want to be able to continue to go to our clients. So we’re flexible and try to work with them. When people have a past due bill, they're embarrassed about it. People don't want to be in that situation, and we understand that when we get on the phone. And we work to help people get out of that.
Dunkum recommends checking out the collection industry trade group’s website. It outlines the laws collection agents have to abide by and helps identify the bad actors in the industry.