Bill collectors for National Credit Management Corp. of Hunt Valley are combining old-fashioned know-how with modern computer technologies to track down America's deadbeats in record time.
Working with computers that can scan scores of data bases, including those of the U.S. Postal Service, the Census Bureau and telephone directories, bill collectors today can do in minutes what used to take hours -- or even days -- to accomplish by hand, said Thomas F. Gillespie, president of National Credit, a credit and collections agency.
"The idea is to incorporate technology into the business to work accounts much more efficiently and closely," said Mr. Gillespie, whose company handles bill collections for corporate clients nationwide.
Bill collectors have an arsenal of computerized weapons at their disposal to help find debtors, the first step in getting any deadbeat to pay up, Mr. Gillespie said.
That includes automated skip tracing, a computerized function that automatically provides collectors at National Credit with leads on debtors gleaned from a data base of 120 million people nationwide. After scanning through postal forwarding-address files, phone books and credit-bureau reports, the system provides the collector with the last known residence and length of residence of the missing debtor. New phone numbers can be found the same way.
If that information fails to lead the collector to a debtor, National Credit's system can pull up the names, addresses and phone numbers of a debtor's former neighbors. Bill collectors often talk with past neighbors to get clues to a debtor's current whereabouts.
But finding a debtor's neighbors used to require a considerable amount of sleuthing by collectors -- they had to flip manually through directories cross-referenced by street names. Now the same thing takes just seconds.
National Credit also uses sophisticated phone technologies to cut down on the time collectors have to spend listening to busy signals, no-answers and answering machines.
One of those technologies, known as predictive power dialing, automatically dials all accounts with valid phone numbers and delivers a call, once it has been answered, to a collector. The system automatically filters out busy signals, no-answers and calls answered by machines.
That means collectors spend less time chasing bad numbers and more time on the phone talking with debtors, Mr. Gillespie said.
In addition to convenience, Mr. Gillespie noted, using such technologies also is a tactical decision that affects National Credit's ability to handle a large volume of clients with a minimum of collectors. The company, which has accounts with Xerox Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and US Sprint, has only about 50 collectors.
With the old manual system of dialing, collector were lucky to talk to four people an hour, Mr. Gillespie said. With the new technology, it is not unusual for a collector to talk with 25 or more an hour, he said.
National Credit also has a few technological tricks up its sleeve to speed up collecting money from debtors who call in on their own.
One technology, known as automatic number identification, is the bill collector's version of Caller ID, the consumer service offered by C&P Telephone Co. of Maryland that allows users to see the numbers of incoming calls.
Using automatic identification, an advanced digital technology, National Credit can identify the number of an incoming call before it is answered. By combining this function with National Credit's "intelligent" phone network, the debtor's account is automatically located and passed to the collector handling the account.
Should all else fail -- if debtors don't call in and can't be found -- the long arm of technology still plays a role in the final step of the collections business: litigation.
At Wolpoff & Abramson, a Bethesda-based law firm that specializes in collections, collectors can generate the necessary documentation to file lawsuits directly on the computer, then file the suit on-line.