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Debt collectors dialing up pressure on US customers

In Pakistan, call centers are a growth industry

Touchstone employees handle customer service queries or make sales pitches for cable TV contracts. But about a dozen employees for the Pakistani company work to collect debts. Touchstone employees handle customer service queries or make sales pitches for cable TV contracts. But about a dozen employees for the Pakistani company work to collect debts. (Tanveer Shahzad/ Los Angeles Times)
By Mark Magnier
Los Angeles Times / September 20, 2009

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - It’s 8 o’clock on a Sunday night in the Pakistani capital, but collection cowboy Sharoon Hermoon is living on US time. Headset in place, feet on his desk, he aims his speed dialer at a debtor in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Hello, ma’am, how ya doin’ today?’’ he says in a convincing American accent. “My name is James Harold and you owe us $11,000.’’

There’s a deer-in-the-headlights moment at the other end, then a deep breath, then a torrent of excuses. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,’’ she says. “It’s someone else. My husband’s identity was stolen.’’

After several minutes of runaround, Hermoon hands the phone to Kashif Siddiqui, his supervisor at the Touchstone call center. With years of experience, Siddiqui has heard it all. He’s not abusive, but within seconds, he sharply step up the pressure.

“So your identity was stolen?’’ Siddiqui says. “I’ll need a police report showing that. And a notarized statement that you never took out the loan. Yes, notarized. We can ring the police station right now on a conference call.’’

Click.

As Americans struggle under a mountain of debt, they might be surprised to learn that their collection nightmares may originate in a nation better known for its Taliban insurgency, instability, and extremism. With more economic uncertainty, job losses, and mortgage defaults expected, long-distance arm-twisting has become something of a growth industry in Pakistan.

And though the mostly 20-something crew at the call center expresses empathy for those on the other end of the line, some of them also wonder how the Americans could let themselves slip so far under water.

“Americans are rather addicted to their credit cards,’’ Siddiqui says.

After the woman from Fort Worth slams down the phone, the Touchstone crew goes to work. Predictably, she doesn’t answer their return calls. So in subsequent days they use tracking software and loan document details to generate letters and leave phone messages with neighbors, co-workers, and relatives that they’re trying to reach her. Finally, a few weeks later, worn down, the woman accepts a repayment plan.

“The debt is like a lizard on your back,’’ says Tabinda Batool, 33, a member of the crew.

Most of Touchstone’s 350 “seats’’ - industry-speak for operators - handle customer service queries or make sales pitches for cable TV contracts.

Siddiqui’s dozen or so workers on the deadbeat beat, however, are another breed. Where others read a monotonous sales script, they match their wits against evasive debtors.

When the phone jockeys first call, the debtors’ response tends to be shock and denial. If they’re too cooperative, rattle off prepared answers, and offer to pay everything, they may be pros.

Information is power in the battle against amnesia. “We have dates, the amount they spent, how much they’re earning,’’ says Raja Amir Mehboob, manager of operations and business development with InfoSpan Pakistan, another Islamabad call center. “We can say, ‘You did this, this and this and here are the bills with your signature.’ ’’