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In these tough economic times where more and more Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure, cars to repossession or have sought bankruptcy protection against creditors, debt collectors have become modern-day versions of the biblical tax collectors, historically detested figures.

Still, in the balance of any free market, there’s a flip side to that widespread economic hardship. A booming debt collection industry spells more career opportunities for “customer service-oriented, energetic and outgoing” prospective job hunters, as one local collection agency notes in its bid to lure more help.

American Coradius International, an Amherst-based collections agency, advertises open positions for collections representatives handling both inbound and outbound calls on delinquent accounts held by its clients.

“ACI has a favorable compensation package combined with an excellent bonus structure which makes ACI a professionally satisfying and financially rewarding career choice,” the female voice on the end of the recruiting department’s recorded message states.

Early this month, the agency issued a press release entitled “Here We Grow Again...” and, in it, stated that “due to increased volumes and new clients, the ACI is growing again” inviting interested job seekers to apply and attend a pair of “new hire training classes” this month.

Representatives from the Sweet Home Road firm declined to be interviewed for this article. Other collection agencies approached by either The News or the Better Business Bureau in Upstate New York on the News’ behalf also declined to comment or failed to return telephone calls.

Peggy Penders Tronolone, public relations and marketing director for the Amherst-based office of the Better Business Bureau in Upstate New York, pointed out however, some collections agencies are highly-accredited by the BBB, including ACI, which has been a member since 1997 and one of several to hold an “A+ rating.”

Another local firm, the Mercantile Adjustment Bureau in Williamsville, last November received $1 million in investments by Rand Capital Corp. An executive at Rand, which had previously rejected investing in collections firms, said at the time that the local venture capital outfit was impressed by Mercantile’s “experienced management” as well as its potential for growth.

Although not listed as an accredited member of the BBB, Mercantile, which acquired rival Creditors Interchange Receivable Management earlier in the fall, holds an “A-” rating with the bureau.

It also is encouraging “qualified, self motivated individuals interested in career opportunities” to apply for employment there.

“Our goal is to recruit, effectively train and inspire employees to provide outstanding service in the collection industry,” Mercantile advertises on its website.

The burgeoning debt collection industry is ever on the radar of the BBB.

Penders Tronolone pointed out that the BBB recently held a meeting about debt collectors because of the sheer volume of complaints it generates with the bureau.

For example, collection businesses were the top “type of business” that consumers queried the BBB about in 2012, totaling 147,366 report views during the year. The BBB maintains about 500 files on collection businesses, many of which are located near metro Buffalo.

Penders Tronolone said that collection businesses “have a much higher percentage of a BBB failed rating.” In fact, ratings in the industry are listed as “D” or “F” about 44 percent of the time compared to about only 10 percent of the bureau’s remaining business reports, of which it annually manages more than 45,000.

“This is an industry we are monitoring at the Better Business Bureau because have such a deep roster of collectors in our service area. A majority of them are located in Western New York,” Penders Tronolone said. “Certainly, this is an area where we’re trying to educate consumers.”

That education, according to Penders Tronolone, involves what consumer rights are vis-a-vis debt collectors.

Some of those rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act are also explicitly outlined on the Federal Trade Commission’s website at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0149-debt-collection.

The act itself “prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to collect from you,” the FTC states.

Some of those outlined prohibitions, for instance, include harassment such as threats of violence, publishing debtor names, use of profanity, repeated telephone calls designed to annoy, and offering false statements in efforts to collect debts.

Collections agents, who are often rewarded financially by the companies they work for based on how much they collect, are not allowed to misrepresent the amount owed or falsely claim they are attorneys or government representatives, that you have committed a crime or that they operate or work for a credit reporting company.

The FTC also points out that it is illegal for debt collectors to threaten arrest to debtors who don’t pay or to suggest that they will “seize, garnish, attach, or sell your property or wages unless they are permitted by law to take the action and intend to do so.”

Unfair practices such as attempting to collect interest and fees above the owed amount is also not permitted along with other provisions.

The local BBB also has published “Educational Consumer Tips” about debt collection on its website at: www.bbb.org/upstate-new-york/industry-tips/read/tip/debt-collection-38.

The biggest complaints consumers raise with the BBB against debt collectors besides, disputing they owe the debt in the first place, is that the collection agents are “harassing” them. Penders Tronolone estimated the number of calls to the BBB to be in the “thousands” each year, easily putting the industry in the Top 10 for complaints.

That’s why Penders Tronolone said the bureau often tries to work to mediate disputes between consumers and the debt collection agencies that are pursuing them.

“We are acting as a neutral, third-party to try to reach a resolution,” she said.

Collections agencies account for more than 18 percent of the 19,000 annual complaints fielded by the BBB. The top complaint area involves billing and collection issues, the bureau reported, followed by problems with products and service.

Out of nearly 3,500 collections-related complaints filed in 2012, the BBB worked to resolve about 76.2 percent of them, according to a bureau statistic.

“That’s a significant result,” said Penders Tronolone, “meaning consumers do gain outcomes when reporting to BBB, even if it does not mean they escape the debt.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com