How to avoid shark attacks

It’s amusing, somehow, that-among the dozen or so tabs I have open in Safari right now-one contains the lyrics to the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” and another a New York Times article about fighting back against the illegal tactics of debt collectors. It’s just a coincidence, of course, but one that might seem telling to the many people who unquestioningly assume that people with debts in collection are simply deadbeats who deserve what they get.

I wonder if there is much overlap between such people and those who think that health care reform is about giving “insurance for nothing” to deadbeats, as opposed to giving everyone an equal right to give their money to a private corporation in exchange for moderate protection from financial disaster resulting from chance and accidents of birth-but I digress.

Just like no one can safely assume that they’ll never be homeless (even the one percent or so of us who have enough in the bank to outlast some months of unemployment, although by using “us” there I don’t mean to imply that I do), having a debt in collection is a circumstance we are all probably much more likely to experience than we might think.

Come to think of it, I experienced it, once-or, at least, a collection agency thought I did. Turns out the real debtor was someone else with a vaguely similar name who had an unpaid bill at some hospital in a state I’d never visited, and it was relatively easy to clear up.

Still, what with the state of the economy and the rampancy of identity theft, even people who make good-faith efforts to discharge their debts could still end up on the receiving end of the kind of threatening, obscenity-laced phone calls that plagued my family when I was in elementary school.

Now, let me hasten to point out that I have no problem with companies seeking out the money that is legally owed them, and boy did my family legally owe some companies some money back then. Nonetheless, there are laws enumerating what debt collectors can and can’t do, and threatening prison and/or levying shocking insults against the family members of people who have fallen on hard times and are struggling to pull their heads back above water aren’t among the former. At various low points of my own, there have been a lot of unpleasant jobs I’ve been willing to work, but debt collection-in which job openings are advertised frequently enough to suggest that it’s both a booming field and one that has difficulty retaining people, and gee, I wonder why-ain’t one of them.

So, partly to aid my own memory when the hammer falls, and partly for your own enjoyment, here’s the article lede, describing a man who seems to take personal pleasure in helping people make debt collectors follow the law, a personality that honestly feels pretty similar to my own.

Among debt collectors, Steven Katz is known as a “credit terrorist.” For years, he has run what he calls the Steven Katz School of Bill Collector Education, otherwise known as the “credit terrorist training camp.”

Mr. Katz, a 58-year-old accountant in suburban Tucson, spends his free time schooling debtors on the finer points of consumer protection law to help them turn the tables on debt collectors. On occasion, he thumbs his own nose at them too.

“How many times can I sue you? Let me count the ways…”

The article offers some practical hints about resisting collection efforts (prime among them: demand proof of the debt, because apparently a lot of times there isn’t any, just a notation that you owe money in a spreadsheet somewhere). But for the real deal, you probably need to visit Katz’s website (“website” as opposed to “Web site” AP-approved, by the way).

For comic relief, I enjoyed reading about this guy, even if this particular bit of color doesn’t exactly help improve the image of the category of people who might also find themselves resisting a collection attempt. Still, you have to draw the line somewhere:

“Mr. Scroggin, who provides price estimates at a body shop, said he was the type of person who refused to be taken advantage of, even for petty offenses. For instance, years ago, he said he joined in the class-action suit against the pop group Milli Vanilli, accused of lip synching, and collected a $1.25 check.”

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