Given the economic malaise in Hong Kong over the last couple of years, it is not surprising that many people have accumulated large amounts of personal debt. This has given rise to a new occupation --- the debt collector who is employed by a collection agency. The business model was borrowed from the Japanese yakuza, but the locals have introduced some extra flavors. The following is a loose translation of an article in Next weekly magazine by an undercover reporter:
Recently, a company known as Collection King advertised in the major newspapers that they were hiring Collection Supervisors, with training provided for successful applicants. I called up the listed telephone number and I was given an office address on Nathan Road near the Prince Edward subway stop. I went there and I found a 800-sq foot hall with rows of folding chairs for applicants. I got an application form and filled out my particulars. Then a Mr. Song who said that he was the Director brought me into his office, pulled down the window blinds and told me in a tough tone: "Look! There are all sorts of fucking people in our business. Academic credentials don't mean shit. The most important thing is how street-smart you are."
Then he asked me if I was 'clean.' When I told him that I did not understand his question, he gave it to me straight: "Punk, do you owe anyone money? Do you have a gang boss that you pledge fealty? Are you in the triad? It is best if you are not. You should not think that only gangsters get into this business. It is more important to have a clean record."
Then he got into the main subject about his personal experience in collecting debts. He said that his company specializes in collecting bad debts from mahjong losses, illegal soccer gambling and personal debts. "Out of every ten debtors, ten of them are liars. It does not matter what they say. If you can't reach them by telephone, you talk to their families. The older the person on the telephone, the easier it will be. Never threaten them the first time, just be polite and gentle, but at the same time apply pressure politely. You have to let them know that you will be taking additional steps very soon."
After explaining how to make telephone calls, he told me about the personal visits. "Out of every ten debtors that you visit at home, ten of them will not be at home. If you are certain that someone is there except that they won't open the door, you just have to let your supervisor know. He will call the police and tell them that there is a suicide at that address. When the cops come, they'll break down the door. So you have just escalated. Oh, by the way, you should also let the neighbors know what is going on there."
Our reporter was obviously quite astonished. Then Mr. Song told the reporter that today's training session was over and to come back next week for more. At the next training session, the Collection Supervisor Brother Kang came in with a large number of files and began to explain the Art of the Magical Flute: "All of these debtors have stopped using their telephones for some time. But we have the telephone numbers of their friends and relatives. It is alright if our target is not there. Just make sure that you call every 15 minutes to annoy them. If they don't say anything or they tell you to stop bothering them, you should say, 'Please ask him (her) to think about this carefully. If the money is not paid back, we are going to take further steps.' You should never describe those steps over the telephone because they may be recording the conversation."
Other than the Magic Flute, there are also the Three Precious Tools of Collecting Debt. Brother Kang said that further actions will be necessary to persuade the diehard deadbeats. He said that all debt collectors carry a tool box that contains kerosene, red paint and metal chain. "Since they are so hard to find, it is necessary to leave a sign that you have been there. Since you are bringing these types of items, you should know what to do with them, you know what I mean?"
After saying all that, Brother Kang handed two yellow files to the reporter with information about some debtors. He then declared the training to be complete and then the reporter can begin to work by visiting these people in person. The base salary would be US$300 per month, with a 9% commission on all collected amounts. Our reporter told him that the job was not suitable, and declined the offer.
Here is what the laws say:
To knowingly file a false police report about a suicide at a location is a violation of the Police Law Code Section 232 Article 63, which carries a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and a US$600 fine.
Threatening someone (e.g. "You better tell your family to watch it!") is a violation of the Police Law Code Section 200 Article 24, with a maximum penalty of 5 years in jail.
The red-painted graffiti are usually used first to let the target (and all their neighbors) know that the debt collector is looking for him (her). Sometimes there may be fliers about the target to ruin his (her) reptuation among the neighbors (e.g. XXX is a prostitute). It is also common to leave human excrement outside the door. It is less common to visit the workplace of the debtor as the yakuza would do in Japan. Further escalation may result in locking up the iron gate (note: many Hong Kong apartments have a wooden door and an iron gate) and using kerosene to torch the apartment from which the inhabitants cannot escape. Usually, these props are placed there but the match is not lit (the message being that it could have been, or will be the next time). The red paint and the kerosene are a violation of Police Law Code Section 60 on property damage, with a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail. If the arson started by kerosene ends in death or injury, the maximum penalty is a life term in prison.
These debt collection agencies thrive because they get to keep 60% of the amount collected with only 40% going to the lender. It is a strange fact that there are a number of these collection agencies but they all have the same symbolic modes of operation (e.g. if you see a chained gate or splashed red paint on the wall or a pile of shit, you know immediately what the deal is).