On average, inflation has been hovering around 9.5% in the last fifteen months. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has hiked policy rates 10 times in this period, which hasn’t helped borrowers either.
Many borrowers saw their loan tenor increase as banks raised interest rates. With the latest interest rate hike, the equated monthly instalments (EMIs) of many borrowers also rose sharply.
Rising interest rates, coupled with high inflation, have sent the monthly budgets of many a household for a toss. If you are unable to pay monthly credit card dues or struggling to service home, car or personal loan EMIs, you could have already faced a recovery agent—or may do so in the future.
Fear of agents
In a shocking incident, Mumbai resident Prakash Sarvankar, 38, an ICICI Bank Ltd customer who had taken a Rs50,000 personal loan, committed suicide in 2007—accusing a recovery agent for his death. Such incidents have made the recovery agent a feared character.
RBI has issued guidelines on training recovery agents and the methods they can adopt for collection.
“All our agents have gone through the approved and mandatory training as per the regulator’s guidelines,” said Manju Bhatia, joint managing director, Vasuli.com, a recovery firm which deals with collections on secured loans. According to the Banking Codes and Standards Board of India (BCSBI), “the collection policy is built on courtesy, fair treatment and persuasion.”
But these guidelines and rules seem to have made little impact on the way recovery agents function.
“Aggressiveness of recovery agents has decreased in Mumbai, but in other cities it continues,” said V.N. Kulkarni, chief counsellor, Abhay Credit Counselling Centre. “We get emails from debtors from other cities about aggressive collections. This indicates that though in bigger cities the aggressiveness of recovery agents has substantially decreased, in smaller towns it continues.”
Know the facts
Banks may have an in-house collection department or they may outsource the job to a third-party collection agency. Keep in mind that no bank likes non-performing assets, or bad debts, on their balance sheet. A debt becomes bad when it’s not paid for three consecutive months.
“Usually if the debt is unpaid for a month, the collection team sends reminders or calls up the customer for recovery. However, the delay in payment could just be an oversight on the borrower’s part,” said a senior banker with a private sector bank, who did not want to be named. “But when the debt becomes 90 days overdue, we initiate recovery agent visits.”
This, however, depends on a bank’s policy.
In case you are unable to repay on time, it’s best to tell the bank about your situation. If you have a genuine reason, the bank may be willing to work towards a solution. This also depends on the bank’s policy.
“A credit card debt can be easily converted into an EMI instead of total loan outstanding amount,” said the senior banker cited above. “The bank may even restructure a loan in some cases. Of course, this also depends on your past payment record.”
Keep in mind that at times recovery agents have big targets to achieve and may also have incentives linked to the number and volume of collection. So they are a motivated lot and handling them isn’t easy.
Know the rules: You, as a debtor, have certain rights. Knowing those rights will help you handle a recovery agent.
Identity: You can ask the recover agents to show their identity cards issued by the bank or under the authority of the bank.
Privacy: You have a right to privacy. The recovery agent cannot discuss the debt to another person. So don’t panic if he threatens to tell neighbours or co-workers about your debt. If he does so, you can file a complaint against him with the bank.
Time: The recovery agent should contact you between 7am and 7pm. However, if your working hours or work shift does not permit this, you may be contacted beyond this time limit.
Calls: You can choose the place and time for receiving recovery calls. You can also request them to not call you at a particular place or time. For instance, if you don’t want to receive calls at work, specify the same to the agent or the bank. Keep in mind, they will respect your request only till they feel you are not avoiding them.
Decency: The recovery agent has to talk to you in a decent and civilized manner. No abusive language should be used. Also, the written communication sent by the banks should be easy to understand.
Investigation: If you file a complaint against a recovery agent, the bank needs to investigate the matter. This makes recovery agents accountable for their collection practice.
Inappropriate occasions: If there is a death in your family or any such event, you can tell the agent not to call you or make visits for a few days.
Records: Banks document the content of conversations between customers and agents along with the time and number of calls. Banks also need to keep all copies of communications sent to customers.
Disputes: If you face any dispute or differences regarding dues, seek assistance of the lender.
There could be various reasons for you not being able to pay instalments on time— medical conditions, job loss or a twin-income family becoming a single-income household. Macroeconomic factors such as high inflation or rising interest rates, too, can be the reasons. If the reason for non-payment is not temporary, it’s best is to approach credit counselling agencies and seek help. “We provide free credit counselling for those who are struggling to get out of debt,” said Narayanan Raja, chief executive, BCSBI.
Debt counselling agencies such as Abhay and Disha also offer such services for free. If you are uncomfortable going to these centres, you can avail counselling over telephone which also is provided without any cost.
Recourse if harassed
If you think the agent is not following any of the above mentioned rules, you should file a complaint. Raja said, “If a borrower thinks he is being harassed, he should first approach the bank, and if not satisfied by its response, he should get in touch with the banking ombudsman.”
Though rules have been laid down to assist borrowers, it is best to rework household budget and make provisions to accommodate the unseen change in the repayment amount.
Illustration by Jayachandran/ Mint