The Collections Saga: Part 1

This is the first part in what will become a real-time series about a reverse identity theft and the ridiculous lengths required to end an annoying campaign of harassment by debt collectors who just have a wrong number.

In December 2013 I got a new mobile phone with Bell. I had recently moved to Toronto, and needed to get a new handset and a local phone number. There are only a few carriers in Canada. By most estimations, Bell is the biggest, and they had a retail store in the concourse of the office tower where I work, so I went there.

This isn’t where I work, but it’s close and it’s a photo from a different year, but hey: seasonal installation art!

I felt like I deserved an iPhone after being a BlackBerry stooge because I used to live in Waterloo, Ontario (home of the BlackBerry). They even let me pick a phone number from a list. There was even a number with a 416 area code which is and was a big deal — now because of Drake — but then because they were mostly taken and hard to come by; there was a serious amount of caché to be had with a 416 because people assumed you’d lived in Toronto a long time if you had that extension, and roots here are a big deal because Toronto is a hard cit22y to get to know. I will never give up my 416.

But this story is not about Toronto, or Bell, or even Drake.

By January of 2014, I was receiving calls from credit collectors looking for Monica Montecito or Monica Bueno.

Eventually I started taking a hard line, arguing with call agents, demanding they escalate my call to someone who would tell me why they were calling, and on whose behalf. They always refuse, and offer to take my name off their call list. As hard as I pushed, as deeply as I grovelled, they would go no further. Tired and vexed, I would acquiesce and hope my patience would be rewarded with karmic restoration. I would wait out the credit collectors. I know how these things work, after all: when the debt been bought and sold enough times, it won’t be cost-effective to employ someone to call me to collect the debt of someone who maybe doesn’t even exist (right?).

Without fail, a few weeks later, a new credit agent starts calling. They always leave a voicemail. They call several times a week if I don’t answer.

“You have the wrong number,” I tell them when they ask for Monica.

“Do you know Monica?” Is always their rejoinder. This is where I get annoyed. They’re calling me, on a number I’ve had for almost three years, asking if I know the person they’re looking for. This question is where it goes beyond and honest mistake, for me. When they ask me to be complicit in their invasion of my privacy for the purposes of collecting someone else’s debt, I stand up a little straighter, my voice gets a little deeper, and my sense of humour flips from good-natured to scathing.

My dog, at Trinity Bellwoods Park (CN Tower in the background)

I brought my dog to run around in the off-leash area at Trinity Bellwoods Park tonight when I got one of these calls. The agent seemed like a nice, reasonable person. “Who are you calling on behalf of?” I ask.

“CBV Collections.”

“Where is that?”

“Vancouver.” And she gives me the address.

I don’t keep a record (I should, I know — consider this is now my record and you are a party to it), but I’m pretty sure they’ve called me before. Nothing ever seems like it’s worth taking notes, but trust me: it is. It always is. Take notes, folks, even when nothing happens. Write. It. Down.

I explain my situation, as I do to all the agents who call me, and plead with them to help me end this madness.

“Well the account is a Rogers account,” she says, matter-of-factly, as if I were making a big deal out of nothing.

I am speechless because they’re not supposed to tell me who hired them to call and call and call and never stop until you get the money. And, I don’t know, maybe I am making a big deal out of nothing. If only I’d kept notes, I’d know for sure.

I picture a small, 20-something girl in a headset and hoodie, who’d rather be in Tofino, surfing and smoking pot with her friends, but instead she took a job in an outbound call centre because she wants to put herself through school to be a dental assistant, and will quite possibly be fired for disclosing the client’s corporate master brand.

The gratitude I feel for her is beyond expression. I hope she reads this and knows that her casual admission altered the course of my life. Or at least my evening.

It took me a good ten minutes and four different 800-numbers to get a human being from Rogers on the phone. Rogers is one of the other national telecommunications companies in Canada (I think there are only three, but there are only about 36 million people in the country, so…yeah).

A young woman answers, thanks me for calling Rogers, and introduces herself.

“Sorry, did you say ‘Theresa’?” I ask. I always ask who I’m speaking with because I have a bad habit of calling people by their names to get them to pay attention to what I’m saying.

“Fah-ree-suh,” she corrects me. “People usually do call me Theresa though.”

I explain again my sojourn. The first person you talk to in any organization is always either the kindest one there that you’ll meet that day, or the most aloof. Fah-ree-suh was the former. She asked me if I’d ever been a Rogers customer.

“Not for a long time,” I say.

“Do you remember the phone number?”

I pause here, and think, why would that matter?

So, I need to point out here that every other 800-number I had called tonight asked me for my 10-digit wireless number, and since I don’t have one connected to a Rogers account, my “call could not be processed.” Dialing zero got me nowhere.

I give her the closest thing I can remember to the phone number I had in 2013, when I was a Rogers wireless customer. I think maybe this will improve the level of service. I later learn that it does not.

Fah-ree-suh, sympathetic and eager to deflect my call because she’s in sales, puts me on hold and I listen to a muzak version of I Gotta Feeling.

And I wait.

When she returns, she introduces to me to Ryu. Fah-ree-suh departs, but before she does she assures me that I’ll be taken care of. I imagine Fah-ree-suh stepping backwards into a shadow and evaporating, along with her soft promise.

Ryu recaps a few facts, as in used to be a Rogers customer, but gets them wrong, as in I’m calling because I owe money on an old account and I’m trying to pay it. She asks me for more personal information, and I start to lose my cool. Ryu is the most aloof person I will speak to all day.

“I’m not a Rogers customer and I don’t owe you any money,” I state.

I’m paraphrasing now, but I assure I didn’t curse or otherwise abuse Ryu. I’ve also leashed my dog and I’m walking out of the park at this stage, cocky and confident that at the very least I’m finally being honest and someone has to endure my indignation, aloof as they may be.

“I left my account with Rogers in 2013 in good standing. I’m calling because it appears that Rogers has hired several collections agencies to pursue someone else and they’ve given my phone number as their contact information. This has been going on for years now. I have no agreement with Rogers and they’re violating my privacy by continuing to give out my phone number. I am being harassed and it needs to stop immediately.”

Ryu says she will get a manager. She places me on hold. I’ve got a feeling that tonight’s going to be a good, good night. But not actually.

I walk north, across Dundas Street West and go to the pet store there because I’m out of dog food. The owners are both there, and I can never remember their names but seeing them always makes me happy because they’re just those people. I place my phone on the counter and put it on speaker while I order. I tell the shop owners what I’m doing, and they each roll their eyes when I say “I’m on hold with Rogers.” It’s a Canadian inside joke, as well understood here as “can you hear me now?” is anywhere you get American TV commercials.

Ryu returns. “There are no available managers, but one will be with you in five minutes.”

I’m glad there are people around because my initial urge is reach into the giant screen on my phone and pull Ryu through it into my ridiculous nightmare.

Instead, I say, “Look, you’ve got my number, have one of them call me back. And they have to call me back tonight, or I’m going to the press with this.”

“We can’t return calls, sir. I’m sorry.”

“Well that’s too bad, because first thing in the morning I’m going to call the CBC, and the Globe & Mail, and the CRTC and explaining to them how Rogers has been selling a phone number that belongs to someone who isn’t even their customer to collections agencies, and that’ll be on you.” And I was perfectly calm when I said it, like it was always bound to happen that way and we were all just reading from a script. And my audience — which included a few more pet store patrons at this point — didn’t even bat a collective eyelash.

In all, I spent over 30 minutes on the phone with Rogers. I feel like that was a fair amount of time. I’ve had break-ups that took less time than that.

The CRTC is the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. They’re the bureaucrats (which is not a dirty word in Canada) that make the rules for broadcasters. The CBC is Canada’s public broadcaster, and they love acting like it. The Globe & Mail I threw in there to make me claim seem even more legitimate, because that’s Canada’s last and only real national newspaper (sorry, Toronto Star).

So, my friend and confidant, tomorrow I embark on an adventure of public relations and corporate affairs in which I try as a single, solitary citizen to get a little bit of privacy back from the maw of corporate profit maximization.

I look forward to sharing the experience with you.