An investigation of the bottom-feeding underworld of debt collecting and its disreputable cast of rip-off artists.
As journalist and novelist Halpern (Dormia, 2009, etc.) discovered, the world of debt collection is every bit as scummy (and possibly scummier) as its reputation has always suggested. “Some thirty-five million consumers—roughly 14% of all Americans—are currently being hounded over at least one loan,” he writes. The author delivers a tale of two kinds of lowlifes and their collaboration in a lowest-common-denominator business that makes Wall Street look meek and ethical. Halpern begins with a focus on former banker Aaron Siegel, who moved back to his financially downtrodden hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., rounded up $14 million from chummy investors and opened his own private equity fund specializing in debt collection. After being ripped off by his own shady employees, who stole a huge portfolio of debt out from under his nose and started their own rogue agency, Siegel decided to employ the help of ex–bank robber Brandon Wilson to help strong-arm the debt collection competition into submission. Halpern tracks not only Siegel and Wilson’s quixotic quest for the stolen debt, but also the ugly, everyday inner workings of the business as a whole, much of which is based in crime-ridden, economically destitute Buffalo. The predominantly unethical practice of buying, selling and collecting debt is carried out by just the sort of societal outcasts you’d expect—usually, ex-cons or other desperate, otherwise unemployable screw-ups fill the business’s ranks. Halpern’s story of the debt collection world is also a dramatic rise-and-fall tale that traces the anything-goes heyday of debt collecting businesses in the unregulated early 2000s and how it has changed with the consequential recent Obama-era crackdowns on the shadier practices in the field. As we see in the book, these new regulations make it much harder for miscreants like Siegel and Wilson to survive.
Halpern brings unexpected literary heft to the world of debt collection.