Debt collectors, the enforcers of the credit world, have long been plagued by a reputation as unscrupulous thugs who work in fly-by-night operations and delight in pouncing on people when times are tough.
But the debt-collection industry says it has been misunderstood. Today's debt collector, industry executives assert, is a well-educated and courteous professional who is regulated by strict laws and uses the latest technology to perform a vital service in a credit-driven economy.
To be sure, the business has undergone fundamental changes in the last two decades that have improved its reputation, regulators say.
Nationwide companies with hundreds of closely supervised collectors and computerized operations have arisen from an industry once comprised exclusively of small firms serving businesses in their neighborhoods.
The American Collectors Association, a 3,600-member trade group, has worked to pass laws regulating the business. It has also sponsored a campaign to educate collection agencies about proper conduct and the public about its rights -- all in the interests of making people more agreeable if collectors come calling.
These changes came just in time for agencies to benefit from the debt-clogged 1980s. The industry has expanded rapidly in recent years; collectors handled $66.5 billion in debts in 1990, up from $14.5 billion in 1980, the association said.
But even Linda Russell, the American Collectors Association's president, acknowledges that no matter how much the industry reforms, debt collectors will be unpopular and unwelcome to much of the public. That is particularly true in the current recession, when more and more people have fallen behind in their payments and debts are more difficult to collect.
"I think the debt-collecting industry is a lot more understood now than it used to be," said Mrs. Russell, chief executive of CollectionCenter Inc., a privately owned agency in Rawlins, Wyo. "But I guarantee you that there are many, many people who will never understand what it is.
"People feel very distressed when someone reminds them of their debts. And I don't think there is a thing that we can do to change that."
In the past, collectors often visited debtors' homes. But to cut costs, most now use the phone. Some agencies have developed sophisticated strategies for talking to debtors; some have employed industrial psychologists to devise scripts. But in general, most agencies tell their collectors simply to be polite and sympathetic.
"You don't collect bills by screaming at someone," said James R. Bohmann, a senior vice president at Payco American, the largest agency in the country. "You collect bills by understanding people."