Confessions of a Former Teen Debt Collector

With payday lending becoming a desperate lifeline of the pandemic, I’m forced to reckon with my past life working in a predatory system

Photo illustration, source: Michael S. Williamso/The Washington Post/Getty Images

It was an accident, becoming a teenage debt collector. “Listen,” a friend told me. “There’s this job I heard about — it’s at a law firm, you’ll make bank.” It was the summer of 2015, and I was a college student living in downtown St. Louis, away from my childhood home in the Missouri suburbs. The promise of a $10 hourly rate for office work was a serious upgrade from my earnings as a lifeguard. So I met with the partners at their exposed-brick office, burrowed in a city alley.

The firm defied every stereotype of the typical tax attorney. In the lobby, an incense machine whirled in front of colorful tapestries. The two men who ran the joint, both white, bald, and middle-aged, wore Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. The secretaries sat cross-legged and barefoot in sweats, eating Lean Cuisines. “We like to keep it fun and casual here,” one of the partners told me. He had a side practice teaching yoga at a neighboring studio. They ordered bougie salads to the office on Fridays.

The interview was simple. They asked if I was organized; I fervently nodded yes. I started work the next week, paid in cash.

My early introduction to the underbelly of the predatory lending world taught me the ramifications of taking a job before understanding the implications. I soon learned the firm was a debt collection agency; my role was to file court orders against people who didn’t pay back loans. I didn’t know anything about payday loans before this gig. My only exposure to these so-called cash advance loans was seeing the phrase posted in fluorescent lights along the storefronts in my hometown: EASY MONEY HERE.

My role was to keep tabs on debtors. I used PI software to follow their places of employment and residence.

Those same neon letters on barred windows became impossible to escape this year with the start of the pandemic, when payday loan shops continued to gleam with false promise, under the guise of essential business: QUICK CA$H HERE! BAD CREDIT OK! Seeing the shops tucked away in boarded-up strip malls marked my return home to Missouri this spring after my life in New York came to a halt. I had lost my job and my graduate school courses transitioned online. Returning home meant I was stuck in social isolation during a time of nationwide protests and a deep cultural reckoning with systems of oppression — the very system I once worked within.

During my tenure as a debt collector, I watched as different kinds of people entered this promised land of fast cash. Some had medical emergencies or childcare expenses; others needed to pay rent, buy food. Borrowers were often poor, in a bind, and didn’t have access to other types of lending. Payday lenders offer immediate funds — but at a heavy cost. In states like Missouri and Illinois, the interest rate on these kinds of loans is as high as up to 900%. In a few months, a $500 loan can become $4,500 of debt. The first time I saw a triple-digit interest percentage, I asked one of the lawyers if it was a typo. “Well no,” the partner told me. “It means they’ve been hiding from us.”

My role was to keep tabs on debtors. I used PI software to follow their places of employment and residence. I’d then relay the intel to the sheriff’s office so deputies could track down debtors at their homes and work, notifying them a portion of their paychecks would be withheld until they paid off their debt. Every week, I’d head to the courthouse and shove a stack of lawsuits through the window of the sheriff’s office. Then I’d wait back at the firm to hear if they were successfully served.

Debtors tended to move workplaces often, a sign of poverty’s cyclical and relentless nature. Sometimes debtors would come to the firm to try and assuage the constant contact. Often they weren’t allowed in. “We have bars and security codes for this reason,” a partner said.

I developed a strange attachment to my assigned debtors as I followed them through various life transitions: job and partner changes, moving, new babies. I watched lives unfold from behind my computer screen. Sometimes I looked up their homes on Zillow, wanting to know them as humans, beyond their debt. Some lived in downtown St. Louis’ once-regal brick homes, now dilapidated from a century of city turmoil. Others bounced through North County housing projects. I zoomed in on homes with carefully tended flower boxes or wind chimes on wraparound porches.

“Well, sure, it’s a real bummer, especially when you see people have medical issues,” the partner shrugged. “But like everybody else, you have to pay your bills.”

When I felt a particularly strong affinity to a debtor, I’d look them up on Facebook, out of curiosity. Most were inactive. I never reached out to anyone — I simply observed from behind the firm’s IP address. When a debtor had a child, our relationship would usually end. (I was barred from collecting from someone who also owed child support.) When I left the office for the day I’d continue piecing together debtors’ lives, searching for the forces that trapped them in this relentless cycle of debt. They didn’t know I existed.

I worked at the firm for one long, morally confusing, all-consuming summer. The Ferguson protests broke out a year before I took the job, and the city was still grappling with the fallout. Michael Brown’s death was not only a catalyst for the fight against police brutality, but one against a predatory society, particularly in St. Louis. I’d always felt my hometown couldn’t figure out what side of history it intended to be on. It’s an in-between place, muddled in wealth disparity and segregation so blatant it’s known as the Delmar Divide, named after the boulevard that separates Black and white neighborhoods.

I’d watched the city attempt to rebuild itself time and time again. Yet while it seemed publicly we were moving toward change, I was privy to the skulking ways a system still exploited those most vulnerable. It’s one that continues now, as payday lenders target the unemployed, preying on economic turmoil and a global pandemic. Payday loans are yet another form of modern oppression, robbing people of freedom, of personhood.

On my last day working at the law firm, I asked one of the partners if he ever felt bad about his whole operation. He was rushing out to teach his yoga class. “Well, sure, it’s a real bummer, especially when you see people have medical issues and things like that,” he shrugged. “But like everybody else, you have to pay your bills.”

Meghan Gunn is a writer. https://www.meghangunn.com/ tweeting @95gunn

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