Debt recovery agents are in uproar over the negative picture depicted of them on an E.TV programme where a debt collector is shown trespassing on the property of a debtor and addressing him in what could be construed as threatening language.
Thinus Nortje, media spokesman of the Association of Debt recovery Agents (ADRA) – which represents the roughly 14 000 debt recovery agents active in South Africa – says the depiction of collectors was wholly inappropriate and completely inaccurate because this was simply not the way they operated.
“We represent the overwhelming majority of registered debt collectors in South Africa and this is simply not the way we work.
“In almost all cases recovery is limited to telephone calls demanding payment and even these are limited. No calls are allowed on a Sunday or before six in the morning or after nine at night.
“It is simply untrue that we trespass on the property of people that we try and collect money from,” Nortje says.
He says individuals who most frequently entered the property of indebted persons by breaking down gates and doors were repossession agents who had to be accompanied by a Sheriff of the Court and with a summons in execution of property which is issued by the court and even then they would only do so if they are refused reasonable access.
Nortje says the Debt Collectors Act of 1998 stipulates very clearly what was acceptable practice and what was not.
“It seems that the existence of this act which provides widespread protection to the debtor and binds debt recovery agents to a very specific Code of Conduct is not all that widely known because even our honourable minister, Jeff Radebe, in a recent statement, called for legislation to regulate the industry.”
Among the many caveats and restrictions contained in the legislation is a Code of Conduct that specifies exactly what a debt collector is allowed to do.
“It stipulates very clearly that a debt collector, in the process of collecting a debt, shall have due regard for the person, the property and the civil rights of a debtor, and shall ensure that any action taken against a debtor does not humiliate, threaten or cause distress to such a debtor. This in practical terms means no scaling of walls and no threatening language,” Nortje says.
“They are also not allowed to use obscene, defamatory or threatening language when communicating with a debtor or abuse or intimidate a debtor in any manner, in order to induce the debtor to pay an outstanding debt.
“There are many more rules and regulations – most offering protection to the debtor – but also making it crystal clear what the rights of the debt collector are.”
The regulator of the industry is the Council for Debt Collectors, a statutory body with the power to monitor and regulate the industry in accordance with the rules and regulations of the Debt Collectors Act. It monitors the conduct and professionalism of debt collectors and seeks to promote a culture of good governance within the profession, thus contributing to protecting the public at large, as well as creditors.
“Debt recovery as a discipline is one of the most highly regulated professions in South Africa. Every step that we take has to comply with all the rules and regulations laid down in the 1998 Act.”
Nortje concedes that there are some “cowboys” operating outside the bounds of the law and that had done the debt collecting industry a great deal of harm, but that ADRA in cooperation with the Council for Debt Collectors are doing everything possible to rid the industry of these unscrupulous operators.
“There is also the issue of the rights of the person or company who granted the debt in the first instance. They had a reasonable expectation that the debt would be paid and it is our job to see that the expectation is fulfilled in an ethical and legal manner.”
Asked what debtors should do in the event that they get to deal with debt collectors who operate outside the bounds of the law, he says their first call should be to the police to have the debt collector evicted from their property and charged with criminal trespassing. Secondly they could call the Council for Debt Collectors who would investigate the complaint and institute disciplinary proceedings against the debt collector where needed and thirdly the Association of Debt Recovery Agents at their office in Randburg, who will investigate the matter and take steps against the transgressing debt collector if needed.