We started TrueAccord in 2013 because we wanted to crowd out the “bad guys” in the debt collection space. Every dollar that will be paid through our system, we figured, is a dollar not paid through them. We will get involved in the messy world of debt collection, get our hands dirty, actually deal with those in debt instead of providing technology and hoping for the best. And we will emerge the winners.
Three years later, we still believe that. Those in debt who choose to work with us get flexible payment plans, where every dollar pays for their debt – principal first. Their interest is frozen. We don’t charge fees. More and more banks, issuers and large companies work with us, and they care so much about their customers’ experience that they push us to be even more lenient than we ever thought we could be.
Looks like we did it; we’re the good guys. And when John Oliver bashes debt collectors and debt buyers on his show, I should be thrilled. I should be one of those who stand on the sidelines and point and laugh and cheer at the tremendous feat of forgiving almost $15 million of old debt. But I don’t. I’m actually quite pissed.
Why is that? What’s in this piece that gets on my nerves?
Don’t get me wrong, I like the show. Who doesn’t like getting the news shouted at them with a British accent? I also get that he’s not a journalist, he’s an entertainer, and the video was indeed entertaining. It had another problem, though: it absolutely, completely, utterly managed to miss the point.
If you’re chasing clicks and eyeballs, debt collection is a great story. Being in debt is scary, it’s confusing, and being repeatedly asked to pay back adds another layer of stress. People in debt often have really sad life stories, and are in constant crisis mode, not always of their own making. The thing is, John Oliver did nothing more than to put them on display, and offer a hocus-pocus solution for their woes. He pretended all it takes is buying their debt for less than half-a-cent on the dollar, as though he didn’t buy extremely old medical debt that no serious business would collect on. Much like in his PayDay lending episode, which ended with Sarah Silverman suggesting that people steal instead of take a loan, Oliver isn’t about offering solutions. He’s about big gestures and laughs. None of these, unfortunately, pays the bills; what it does do is create false hope, confusion, and yet another reason to blame the collector instead of taking responsibility and getting yourself out of debt.
At TrueAccord, we often ask ourselves: what are we to those in debt, and especially to those who are chronically in debt? Are we the gym teacher, shouting at the short-breathed kid to keep his pace up? Are we a doctor, waving our finger at the diabetic who wants another bite of a doughnut? Are we the policeman, giving them a ticket for speeding? Can we be to each what they need, using our targeting technology? As our technology gets better, we get closer to tailoring the right solution to each individual.
One thing is certain, though: the relationship between collectors and those they collect from is a long and complex process. However we position ourselves, our job is to chaperone people through the winding road to getting back on their feet and planning their cash flow. We build tools to give them maximum flexibility with their payout plan, and to easily change it when the unexpected happens (and it usually does). We hope to never see them again in our system, and we feel disappointed when we do, or when they promise something and then change their mind. Above all, instead of distancing ourselves from the situation or turning it into a joke, we get deeply involved because we care – because we want to make a tangible difference. And we do. Day by day. Dollar by dollar.
To see This Week Tonight diminish all this work, to see them repackage the human suffering and complex emotion into several minute tidbits so they can compete with Oprah for biggest giveaway for the poor… I find it demeaning and disrespectful. Almost cynical. And no matter how much truth there is on the show (and there is!), I can’t bring myself to support a simplistic representation of such an issue. That is why I can’t get behind TV’s biggest “giveaway” ever.