STOCKTON — A century ago, CB Merchant Services began as a debt collection agency, known then as the Stockton Merchants Association.
In that time, the not-for-profit organization has worked diligently to help clients recover debts and to help those who owe get their credit back on track. During the recent recession years, the agency saw a spike in collections.
“Probably about in the (1920s) is when ‘adjustment bureaus’ became a need,” said Linda Guinn, president and CEO of CB Merchant Services. “Obviously, we’ve survived many recessions. Our volumes were staggering. The accounts coming in from businesses needing help collecting was absolutely staggering.”
But, as Guinn pointed out, not all of those debts were immediately collectible.
“You really cannot get blood out of a turnip. We are human. If people don’t have jobs and they’re losing their homes, there’s not a whole you can help someone with,” Guinn said.
“Our position is to take more of a counseling approach. We’re not adversarial.”
Guinn stated that many times people are caught up in bad situations, and CB Merchant Services’ goal is to work with those who owe debts to help get their debts taken care of.
“What’s interesting is, as people’s financial situations improve, people actually follow through on their statements with us,” Guinn said. “We actually had people calling, saying, ‘I know I have accounts there. I’m back to work, and I want to take care of them.’”
The past year has shown the most strength as far as recovery from the recession, Guinn said. Dropping unemployment numbers are good indicators, and the agency has seen a better response.
When contacting people on outstanding debts, CB Merchant Services will first make sure that they are reaching the person listed on their clients’ paperwork. Accuracy in this regard is imperative. Guinn said that people can be skeptical or gun shy because of previous experiences, and they’ll need to verify that the organization is who they say they are.
“Any new account coming in has to have a validation. Consumers have rights to certain disclosures. The first notice is very formal looking,” Guinn said. “In today’s world where consumers are very fraud-aware, it’s difficult to even get people … (to verify they are) the party we’re trying to reach.”
Once that hurdle is passed, Guinn said the counseling approach begins.
“The script is actually, ‘what can we do to help you take care of this account,’” Guinn said. “Agencies like ours, you don’t stay in business beating up on people. You have to treat people right.”
At CB Merchant Services, they find that some people don’t understand the debt incurred. Many of their clients are doctor and dental offices, and the billing can be confusing, leading to outstanding debt. The key is to get the debt taken care of so that it doesn’t hurt a person’s credit.
The statewide agency handles about 35,000 accounts per year, a number that tripled during the recession, Guinn said.
If the agency doesn’t collect, they don’t get paid. When they do get paid, the fee is about 40 percent, depending on the size of the contract. “Taking in a lot of accounts isn’t necessarily an indicator of wealth of a company. There has to be an account that’s collectible,” Guinn said.
For Guinn, it’s common sense. She said it comes down to treating people the way you want to be treated. “It was so basic and so clear, but today that has to be articulated into these expanded rules and consumer financial protection bureau and things like that.”
Still, CB Merchant Services has done well enough over the years to set up a charitable foundation to give back to the community.
This year, the CB Merchant Services Charitable Fund awarded $102,000 in grants to nonprofit community organizations, and another $2,000 in scholarships was awarded through the California Association of Collectors. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded $2.4 million in grants to organizations throughout Central California.
Students who want to compete for scholarship money through CAC can write an essay on maintaining and building credit. Each year, the CAC receives between 800 and 900 essay entries from throughout the state. Any graduating high school senior is welcome to apply, and the funds can go toward any schooling, whether college fees, vocational schooling or the like.
Those who wish to apply for the scholarship can do so by visiting cacesf.org.