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As U.S. fortunes fade, Pakistani debt collectors dial it up a notch

It’s 8 o’clock on a Sunday night in the Pakistani capital, but collection cowboy Sharoon Hermoon is living on U.S. 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 ramps 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.”

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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 twentysomething crew at the call center expresses empathy for the troubled voices 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, work that demands patience, a thick skin and Uriah Heep-like politeness.

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.

“That is ass-kissing,” says Murad Khalique, 20. “And this is ass-kicking. It suits my personality.”

Touchstone, the Pakistani branch of a company based in Dallas, duns debtors on behalf of consumer-finance companies. It also buys some consumer loans at a discount and keeps whatever it can collect.

The vast majority of people whom Touchstone contacts didn’t plan to fall this far into the red. But a few, maybe 5%, are sharks out to game the system.

When the phone jockeys first call, the response tends to be shock and denial. If they’re too cooperative, rattle off well-prepared answers and offer to pay everything, they’re probably 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, a manager at InfoSpan Pakistan, another call center. “We can say, ‘You did this, this and this and here are the bills with your signature.’ ”

Some debtors pretend they don’t speak English, garbling “Habla espanol” so badly it sounds like they’re talking about a spaniel. Crew members who’ve lived in the U.S. can call their bluff by firing back a few Spanish phrases.

Once cornered, many debtors plead for leniency. The collectors have some leeway to cut deals on the grounds that some money is better than no money, provided the person starts paying and isn’t trying to jerk them around.

Optimal hunting season tends to be early in the month, just after people get paid, and in late April, when tax refunds land. The crew takes secured credit card payments -- more debt, but not their problem -- over the phone or can wait on a cellphone while the person walks to the bank.

Many of the people they’re calling are scared, desperate and lonely. Some embrace the collectors as if they were a psychiatrist, rabbi or minister.

“We hear confessions all the time,” says Ghulam Rabbani, an assistant Touchstone manager. “They start talking about family problems. The elderly talk about the son who doesn’t visit. Especially after Hurricane Katrina, they just wanted to hear a voice.”

The crew tries to be understanding, up to a point. “If you start being too sympathetic, you can’t do your job,” says operator Shaleem Yaqoob, 22, beneath a “no Urdu” sign and a reminder to keep practicing English. “Mother Teresa couldn’t do this work.”

Collectors develop their own techniques, helped by twice-weekly strategy sessions. Most try to listen to the debtor’s story, build a rapport and appeal to their sense of responsibility.

“You really have to understand psychology,” Batool says.

Time spent in the U.S. helps. Mehboob, who lived for years in Massachusetts, recalls a brush-off he got from an American because it was supper time.

“What’s on the table, having corn tonight?” Mehboob shot back. Actually corn and ham, the man responded. “Oh, I love ham,” Mehboob said, although he’s a Muslim and doesn’t eat pork.

“You have that experience to help sell yourself,” he says.

If the person refuses to cooperate, it’s hardball time. The goal: Knock down their ego and get them out of their comfort zone. “It’s a power game,” Batool says. “And a chess match.”

One debtor recently tried to brush them off, saying he’d just gotten out of jail and was unemployed. Their response: “How would you like to go back to jail?”

A “good-cop, bad-cop” approach may also work. After one person plays the heavy, a second lowers the temperature (callers respond well to women in this role), arguing that they’re just doing their job and helping improve the debtor’s credit rating.

On occasion, the “good cop” says he’ll recommend the “bad cop” get fired, as long as the debtor pays up. “Yes, sometimes we play dirty tricks,” Siddiqui says. “But not to hurt them -- it’s the language they understand. They like the fact they got someone fired whom they’re really angry at.”

Once a year, they meet someone so slick and unbending that they’re forced to acknowledge they’ve met their match, at which point they seek a court judgment of up to three times the amount owed.

“If they’re playing a game, we jam ‘em,” Siddiqui says. “Then the repo man comes.”

The call center business here is a fraction of the size of neighboring India’s; huge companies such as Dell and Microsoft have ruled out doing business with Pakistan on security grounds. But Pakistani companies argue that they offer better customer service and that their citizens have “more neutral accents” than Indians.

Collection calls from Pakistan look like a U.S. number, so many debtors stop answering calls from that area code. But Touchstone can make calls “from” other area codes or call at odd hours, catching them off-guard.

Federal law allows collectors to discuss debt matters only with debtors or their spouses. Sometimes a spouse is in the dark when, for instance, there’s an extramarital affair. “Why did you tell my wife?” the husband will scream at them. “Because you’ve avoided us for weeks,” they shoot back.

Call center workers say they hear the pain and fear of the Americans. But South Asians also say their culture tends to put greater weight on frugality.

“Here you save for a couple of years if you want something,” says Siddiqui, who acknowledges he fell into an “instant gratification” mind-set during his 14 years in America. “In the U.S., it often looks like they want an easy lifestyle and don’t want to work for it.”

Many Americans also don’t realize how much they make and how many opportunities the U.S. affords, others say.

“Yes, I feel sympathy that you lost your job,” says Mehboob, who arrived in the U.S. with $200 and worked his way through Tufts University. “But I don’t feel sympathy when you say you can’t make money. If you have a master’s degree and refuse to drive a cab or mow lawns for $20 an hour, that’s stupid. The U.S. is a wide sea with many fish to catch.”

With Americans continuing to fall further into debt, prospects remain bright in these telephone trenches.

“The collection business remains promising,” says Mujeeb Zahur, Touchstone’s general manager. “And the way things are going, there’s always more to collect.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com


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