It looks like the New York Times liked our Theresa Hatt story.
That was the one about how a Bank of America estates rep tried to guilt-trip the son of a deceased card-holder into paying his mother’s credit-card balance, though he was under no obligation to do so. We also spoke to a former B of A collections rep, who told us such techniques were encouraged.
And today the Times reports on a debt-collection firm that contracts with credit-card companies to go after the relatives of people who died with outstanding debts.
The paper makes clear that in most cases — like the one we highlighted — the relatives have no legal obligation to pay up. Not that that’s made clear, of course:
Scott Weltman of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, a Cleveland law firm that performs deceased collections, says that if family members ask, “we definitely tell them” they have no legal obligation to pay. “But is it disclosed upfront — ‘Mr. Smith, you definitely don’t owe the money’? It’s not that blunt.”
Collection agents at the firm, DCM, use some sophisticated techniques.
New hires at DCM train for three weeks in what the company calls “empathic active listening,” which mixes the comforting air of a funeral director with the nonjudgmental tones of a friend. The new employees learn to use such anger-deflecting phrases as “If I hear you correctly, you’d like…”
“You get to be the person who cares,” the training manager, Autumn Boomgaarden, told a class of four new hires.
Often, they succeed:
Brenda Edwards, one of DCM’s top collectors, spoke with a woman in New Jersey about her mother’s $544.96 credit card bill.
“She had no will, no finances, nothing,” the daughter said. “Nothing went to probate.” The $200 in the checking account was used for funeral expenses. But the woman also said the family “filed a form with the county,” indicating that perhaps there was a legal estate after all.
“Is anyone in the family in a position to pay this?” Ms. Edwards asked, adding: “I’m not telling you it needs to be paid at all.”
The woman reached a decision. “I will talk to my brothers and sisters and we will pay this,” she said.
DCM’s chief executive makes clear that right now, collecting even on small debts is crucial for credit card behemoths. “The financial services industry is under a tremendous amount of pressure, and every dollar we collect improves their profitability,” he tells the Times.
But given the parlous state of the industry, those collectors had better be working overtime.