If the skip tracers get on your trail you’d better pay that bill — or else they’ll haunt you forever
AMONG this nation of honest toilers, there is a class of shifty citizens known as the dead-beat set. They finance their way through life on the cuff and sometimes even owe a shirtmaker for the cuff.
Tracking down these fleet-footed fourfiushers —a fascinating technique known to bill collectors as skip tracing—has been developed to an art by Financial Collection Agencies—described by President Joseph B. (Joe) Lubotta as the largest debt-liquidating enterprise in Canada.
FCA agents have put the finger on skips in Ethiopia (this character owed for a fur coat bought in Toronto), England, India, France, Italy and Cyprus, and in almost every city, hamlet and whistle stop on the North American Continent.
Locating these rolling stones, and squeezing blood out of them, calls for considerable ingenuity on the part of FCA fingermen, especially as most of the squeezing is done by remote control, through the mails or over the telephone.
Take “The Case of the Dead-Beat Bridegroom” which FCA considers to be a classic of its kind.
“This customer lived the life Riley would have liked to have lived,” says Lubotta. “He Hhd Riley beat, he lived strictly on credit.” For years this chronic dead beat ran up charge accounts in every city where FCA operates a branch—in Winnipeg, Hamilton, Toronto, Montreal, Saint John, Quebec and Boston— and in many another city as well. In each city he would become involved with a woman and then run up bigger and better bills.
FCA agents were almost always ready to pounce on him with a writ when he’d skip town and the chase would begin all over again. It was during one such disappearance that a sharp-eyed, glibtongued skip tracer in FCA’s Winnipeg office (sharp eyes and glib tongues are standard equipment in the tracing racket) stumbled upon the gimmick which forced him to cough up.
The agent had been making his daily routine check of the newspaper birth, death and social notices when he happened upon an item which caused him to announce to the rest of the staff: “Lover boy is getting married. What’s more the crumb is marrying into the upper crust. This is our chance to nail him.”
A Glove on a Mailed Fist
THE TRACER telephoned the bride-to-be, told her he was an old pal of the groom’s, got himself invited to the wedding, found out that the honeymoon was to be in California.
The next move was to obtain a writ which would restrain the groom from leaving the country until he had squared himself with his creditors, either by paying his bills in full or by kicking in with a fairly substantial payment.
At the wedding, the tracer left a process server outside and milled about among the guests until the groom had arrived. Then the tracer moved in and nailed his man.
“Either you pay up,” he threatened, “or no honeymoon.”
The groom, always a rapid man with someone else’s dollar, made the rounds of the guests, borrowing money on a phony pretext. He didn’t raise enough to pay off in full but he collected sufficient to appease the tracer who considered it all found money.
The sequel to this story is that a few months later a man called at the FCA offices and asked them to handle a claim for $50 against the groom. The creditor had been a guest at the wedding.
In the 23 years since FCA was founded in Winnipeg in 1926 by Lubotta, it has coaxed, . wheedled and legally forced an estimated $7 millions out of thousands of reluctant debtors. It prefers the velvet-glove approach, though at times the velvet gloves are drawn on over brass knuckles.
Lubotta is contemptuous of the crude methods used by some U. S. agencies. For instance, he scorns the agency which equips its collectors with cars painted a fire-engine red. Splashed across the sides of the cars is the name of the agency and each car is supplied with a loud electric bell. The agent parks in front of the debtor’s home, and switches on the bell. Soon heads are bobbing out of raised windows all down the block.
“They seldom have to make a second call,” says Lubotta.
Except when large sums of money are involved FCA does not send collectors on personal calls; too many people are out when the collector calls. FCA prefers to do its dunning through the mails and each year sends out more than a million and a half unpleasant letters.
The opening letter in any correspondence between FCA and a debtor is a mild memory prodder. Letter No. 2 has a bit of a snarl to it and, after that, the malevolence increases at an alarming rate until the heights are reached with this sinister warning:
“This letter is being registered and should we not receive full payment within seven days . . . we will know you prefer to pay to the court and pay court costs as well. This is final, so govern yourself accordingly.”
The average court-fearing citizen can usually be counted on to wilt on receipt of this, but the chronic dead beat will file it among his souvenirs and forget it.
Occasionally the recipient finds a way of striking back. Once a Port Arthur man returned one of these threatening letters with this note scrawled on the back of it: “I paid the $20 and hava
receipt to prove it. It is only because I am such a good-natured cuss that I am telling you this. Actually, I should let you sue and get stuck with court costs. This is final, so govern yourself accordingly.”
The supreme test of the skip tracer’s skill is knowing where to locate his man. It is not unusual for the victim, once he has been traced, to express astonishment at the collector’s bloodhounding job.
“How on earth did you people get my new address?” a man who had been traced from Montreal to Dawson
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City, Yukon, recently wrote FCA. “I thought 1 had burned all my bridges behind me when 1 left Montreal. I am most anxious to keep my present address unknown and will very much appreciate it if you will not disclose it to anyone. 1 will certainly co-operate J in paying my account.”
Actually this task called merely for persistency. “That,” says Lubotta, “is how Stanley found Livingstone.”
Phone calls to friends and relatives of the wanted man produced the first clue: before vanishing he had sold his car. A check with the license bureau uncovered the man who had bought the car. He remembered the skip saying something about having to buy a dog license.
At the dog license bureau FCA was told that the man had mentioned, while buying the dog tag, that he intended to board the hound at a local animal
hospital. FCA called the hospital and there the search ended: an attendant divulged the address in Dawson City.
One effective FCA tracing trick is the personal letter or “ Whatever-beca me-of-old-Bill?” wheeze. While FCA keeps out of the picture, an agent writes an innocuous letter to a friend or relative of Bill, the debtor, saying he would like to get in touch with him and where can he be reached? The agent writes on plain stationery and the return address given is the agent’s own home address or a postoffice box number. No mention of FCA or unpaid bills is made.
The friend or relative may blab in a return letter that Bill is now living over on Elm Street, or is off to the Riviera for the winter. Obviously, it. is not long before an FCA letter is on its way to Elm Street or the Riviera. Chances are Bill will never get to know that he has unwittingly been betrayed by a friend.
Often a debtor surrenders out of sheer exhaustion, as did the Brooklyn
man who wrote: “I have just heard
that you are chasing me all over New York and Brooklyn. Your way of collecting is so thorough that when I return to Canada I will call on the bank and pay them what I owe. I am not trying to get away with anything. If you want to pick me up I wall be in Times Square at 8 p.m. Thursday, W'earing a blue suit and a grey hat.” FCA passed up the date, but within a week were cheered to learn that the bank debt had been paid in full.
Some skips are brash enough to dare FCA to meet them on a catch-andcollect basis. A Port Arthur man was traced through several eastern states and, eventually, back to Port Arthur. “So you finally caught up with me,” he wrote. “I am leaving here in a couple of days. It’s up to you to catch me again. If you do, you collect.”
Catching him was one of the softest touches FCA ever had. On the back of the envelope in which he enclosed his dare the skip had absent-mindedly
written a New Jersey home address. The most frustrating thing that can happen to FCA is to trace a skip or even an ordinary debtor and have the trail end up in jail, which happens more often than they like to remember. FCA once received a 10-page letter from a skip who demanded to know how they mustered the cheek to question his integrity. The letter had been passed by the prison censor.
But the classic reply from a jailbird is still this one from a man in a small Ontario lockup:
“Dear Sir: I could off had you payed up long ago but every time I get some money ahead the Mrs. puts me away for a while & that is where lam right now I got six months to put in. The Mrs. always puts it off by sending yous a very small amount and 1 had a good chance to put this thing to a end I worked about a month when the Mrs. forced me to beat her up a little all she wanted was to live by her self for a while so if I were youse Id send her the bill she got a little store in
the east End of ...... & she gets
$14.00 from the City and $16.00 from the Kids & the store and while Im in here I can’t do a thing ontill I get on my feet again, she won about $50.00 a month ago and she spent that foolish and still the law falls for her story whitch is all a lie just to get me in here so this is all Ive got to say till I hear from you again.”
Eighteen Phone Calls a Night
The long-distance telephone can be highly effective in catching people with their alibis down. A Toronto woman went to Vancouver after sticking a Toronto store for several hundred dollars’ worth of clothes, jewels and other finery. An FCA agent phoned her in Vancouver and was told she’d just left to catch a train for Saskatoon. He had his call trarsferred to the CNR station and had the woman paged. When she came to the phone she was so overwhelmed she blurted out her Saskatoon address—and a promise to pay. After that FCA kept writing her in Saskatoon until she made her promise good.
FCA traced one dead beat from Toronto to New York, to London, to Bermuda and back to Orillia, 40 miles from Toronto, with a person-to-peison call. All it cost was the price of the call from Toronto to Orillia.
The most FCA has ever spent tracing a skip is the $300 in long-distance calls from 1946 on to catch up with Mr. X, an accountant who embezzled $18,000 from a firm in a small Ontario town and then hid out in the States. The firm declined to have a criminal charge slapped on him, but commissioned FCA to haunt him.
FCA has haunted him ever since but hasn’t a ghost of a chance of collecting. Several times they have caught up with him (once it took 18 phone calls in a single night to do it), but each time they were about to put the bite on him he had a sudden change of address.
“This Mr. X ran off not only with $18,000 but also with a former Follies girl,” says Lubotta. “There is a significant relation between the two —the $18,000 and the Follies girl, I mean. It is nearly always so with embezzlers and big-time dead beats: money and women troubles go together.”
There is more than one embezzler on FCA’S books who will go to the grave with a debt millstone still around his neck. One such is a former bank manager who now digs ditches. For the past three years he has been paying $5 a month in a futile attempt to pay off the $5,000 which stuck to his fingers.
Swindlers often glide through life and
their bosses’ money under the misapprehension that if they’re caught with their hand in the till and do time the matter ends there. “How wrong they are,” says Lubotta. “In jail they pay their debt to society. But out of jail they still have a debt to pay to whoever they robbed.”
When confronted with such grim realities swindlers are sometimes wont to gripe bitterly. “I embezzled $3,000 and I have served three years,” one of them wrote Lubotta. “As my time is worth considerably more than $1,000 a year, I feel I don’t owe anyone a penny. Morally, I’m in the clear.”
Another glue-fingered operator who had filched $120,000 from his employer suggested in a letter to FCA that he pay $500 and “then let’s let bygones be bygones.” After considerable negotiation FCA collected $5,000.
It pains Lubotta to admit it, but one embezzler FCA is hounding at present is himself a collector. This fellow had been employed by a large hospital to collect their overdue accounts. The hospital considered him an excellent collector but found fault with him when it began to prove difficult to collect from him. He had pocketed several thousand dollars of hospital funds before this disconcerting discovery was made.
The excuses people dream up to avoid paying are weird, wonderful and whacky.
Lubotta is still hopelessly intrigued by a letter he received in 1940 from a man who owed $12.50 for a pair of glasses. “I can’t pay,” he wrote, “because I bought my brother a fire extinguisher for a wedding present.”
The man who is corny enough to plead poverty is considered plodding and unimaginative by Lubotta, but he admits few are as explicit as the chap who wrote: “You are urging me to
pay my bill. With what? Buttons? I am not working. So keep your shirt on !”
Those Charge-Account Wives
Lubotta also considered this an effective letter: “I intend paying as
soon as I land a job. In the meantime, you may as well know that everything I ever owned is attached. Both the Dominion and provincial governments are after me, a lawyer is hounding me for my alimony, a dentist is gouging me, a trust company has a judgment against me for rent. In other words, gentlemen, if I knew where there is a dollar I owned I would frame it.”
Many a debtor has evolved the startlingly simple economic theory that once a filing has been consumed or worn out it is automatically paid for. A Hamilton woman wrote: “The bill
I owe is for a coat I bough! three years ago. Why didn’t your client get in touch with me before I moved? The coat has since worn out and I don’t think it is fair to expect me to pay for it now.”
A husband is not legally expected to settle his wife’s frivolous debts, but wives are often blamed for their husbands’ insolvency—by the husbands, that is.
FCA could paper the walls of all seven of its branch offices with letters similar to this one from a Winnipeg man: “I gave my wife the money to
send you. Instead, she spent it on herself, so this puts me once again behind the eight ball.”
But not many husbands are as critical as the Quebec man who demanded indignantly: “How do you
expect me to pay my debts when my wife lets me down by quitting her job?”
Lubotta winces whenever he gets a letter such as this from a brow-beaten husband: “Enclosed find a cheque for
$45 in payment of my wife’s bill. Please keep it a secret, but tell these people not to sell my wife any more jewelry.”
Then there’s the Manitoba man who, when tapped for his wife’s hospital bill, wrote: “My wife has been dead
three years now. Asking me to pay her hospital bill now is like asking a man to pay for a dead horse.”
The oldest wheeze in the debt-dodging game is to challenge the bill by claiming the goods or services provided were not satisfactory. “I was kept in the hospital 46 days longer than was necessary as the doctor was away on holiday,” was one man’s variation on this theme. Another wrote: “Do I
really have to pay for the lumber? It was no good, but I can’t return it as I used it all in a house 1 built.”
No Collect, no Charge
In Montreal a man stomped into FCA’s offices, removed his false teeth, plunked them on the counter and stomped out again. His only words were, “They don’t fit.” He was topped a few months later by a citizen who flung his toupee on the same counter, pointed at it and then at his own hair and exclaimed: “They don’t match.”
But the record for incredible alibis is still held by a pretty Quebec City girl who owed a $300 hospital bill. “I would like to pay because they certainly did save my life,” she wrote. “But, unfortunately, I can’t. I will not say why I can’t because you would never believe me if I did.”
Intrigued, FCA sent an agent to call on her and he was told this story: When she entered hospital it was expected she would die. She was an orphan and all she possessed in this world was $500 and a fiancé, who wanted $500. Her fiancé had persuaded her to consolidate her assets by giving him the $500. This she «lid, for, remember, she was going to die. ’Then the unexpected happened. She lived, regained her health and tried to regain her $500. “I’m sorry,” said her boy friend. “But you were supposed to die. It is not my fault that you didn’t. I have spent the $500.” The FCA agent accepted her story—and promptly sent her another bill.
A horde of jilted females is almost constantly beating a path to Lubotta’s door, asking FCA to collect large sums they have advanced to men on the flimsy security of a promise of marriage.
In spite of all the chicanery he has encountered in a long career of bill collecting, Joe Lubotta looks kindly upon his fellow humans. “By and large they’re an honest lot,” he says.
He tells of a Saskatchewan farmer, knocked flat by the depression, who recently paid off a bill he had owed for 15 years. He paid without prodding and voluntarily enclosed internst which amounted to almost double the principal. (A debt is legally outlawed after six years -five in Quebec.)
At 43 Lubotta'gteets the world with a mile-wid¿\salesman ’s smile. At 17, while work.'«/? as an office boy in a real-estate firn he sold his first house; three years later he picked up an $8,000 commission by putting over a $300,000 real-estatt* deal in Winnipeg.
During Word II he sold several million dollars 'vortj,, of Victory Bonds, was dubbed “Million-Dollar Joe.”
Though he still calls FCA “my baby,” he has branched out into many another business: he is president of
a large Toronto auto firm, heads up one of that city’s biggest housing developments and has a stake in several mining companies.
FCA and most other bill-collection agencies work on a “no colect, no charge” basis. But they eharg either
33y$% or 50% of all they do collect. The rate on accounts outstanding up to four years is 33}^%. Fifty per cent is charged on accounts more than four years old, on tracing claims and on claims previously liandled by other agencies. All medical accounts are collected on a 33)$ rate, regardless of age.
The ultimate weapon in the hands of the bill collectors is, of course, the courts. FCA seldom brings the law down on anyone who owes less than $10 (though it has one doctor client who, as a matter of principle, demands FCA sue to recover anything over $5). Before taking legal action FCA also investigates a man’s ability to pay, because some dead beats are judgmentproof; that is, they have so many judgments against them another won’t make any difference and FCA will be stuck with court costs.
FCA works on the theory that there is no sense in throwing good money after bad. Recently they traced a man from Toronto to Calcutta and tried to collect an $800 garage bill he owed in Toronto. When a firm of Indian lawyers asked for $200 initial court costs, FCA advised its client, the garage owner, to forget it.
Sometimes FCA makes rewards for good behavior. Some years ago a Montreal man was dunned for an $800 doctor bill and made arrangements to pay it off at $5 a month. For nine years he was never a day late with a payment. Impressed, FCA got in touch with the doctor and suggested he forget the balance ($260) as a goodwill gesture. He did.
The hill collector is, however, not one of society’s most beloved characters, and Lubotta is able to work up a pretty fair persecution complex on this score. “We are greatly misunderstood,” he contends. “There is some sentiment in our business.”
He recalls the time a woman in Northern Ontario wrote pleading that FCA ease up on her because she and her husband and their children had been completely burned out. As proof she sent along a newspaper clipping which told of the neighbors clubbing together to raise a benefit fund for them. In a return letter Lubotta expressed his sympathy, suggested the woman forget the debt until she had recouped her losses—and enclosed a $25 donation to the neighbors’ fund.
Another time Lul>otta was visiting his Montreal office when a small, heatup little man loaded down with knapsacks, entered and announced: “I’m ready.”
“Ready for what?” asked Lubotta.
“I can’t pay and I’m ready for jail.”
Lubotta staked him to a meal, gave him carfare and sent him home.
So there is some sentiment in the bill-collecting business. ★