Ellen Coyne: Why did Virgin Media hire a debt collector to chase me for the paltry sum of €50.85?
Opinion by Ellen Coyne • 4h ago
I’m starting to feel for the financial institutions in my life, which must be tiring of being treated with such incredulousness. Every interaction between myself and my bank has become a silly mutual interrogation, each of us demanding that the other verify themselves. And companies like An Post, delivery couriers and even the motorway toll operators have all had their identities used as veils by scammers, which has made us all more suspicious of our interactions with the real deals.
So when I received an email, seemingly apropos of nothing, from a “debt collector”, I didn’t believe it. It claimed to be acting on behalf of Virgin Media, a company I hadn’t been with for a year. And it was claiming I owed €50.85, a sum too small to seem legitimate to me.
Well, I was wrong. I had been paying Virgin Media for TV and broadband for about six years, across three different properties. After moving to our new home, our broadband slowed to a pace of futility. One of my all-time top customer service grievances is not being able to communicate with someone who specialises in selling telecommunication services. So when I struggled to speak to anyone at Virgin Media, I cancelled.
Between my old contract and my new one, I must have missed a bill — which I think would have been around €38. The last time I was contacted by Virgin Media was last April, when I got an email to say my bill was ready. As far as I can see, nobody was in touch with me again until March 9 of this year, when another email from the company passed through my inbox without me noticing. It said that I had a new bill of €50.85. A little over two weeks later, Virgin Media hired a debt collection company, which enthusiastically set about trying to extract the relatively modest amount from me.
After setting aside some time to navigate the labyrinth of the customer service phone line, a man from Virgin Media explained to me that I had missed my last bill and that Virgin had been adding late fees to it since. I hadn’t been aware that I’d missed this bill, and that it was snowballing. I didn’t really think I should have to pay it. I asked if I could at least contest the bill with someone? The customer service man’s tone cooled. Did I need to speak to someone in the billing department about how to make the payment?
I missed the last bill, which was my fault. But I think that the use of a debt collector for such a small amount, particularly when I have no record of Virgin Media making an effort to contact me about it in the interim, is crazy. Is it not blind greed to hire a debt collector for such a small amount, an exercise that could surely make retrieving the bill cost more than the bill itself? Why, in a cost-of-living crisis, would a utility company turn to a debt collector so quickly and for such a relatively small amount?
I contacted Virgin Media, whose press office proved far more sympathetic than their customer service team. I asked if the company has any policies to set a limit under which it won’t use debt collectors. I also asked if it assesses the profile of a customer before using a debt collector — to establish if they are vulnerable or elderly, for example. Virgin Media said that it “always engages positively” with people who may be having difficulty paying bills. “Formal debt collection arrangements are rare and are generally only ever sought when all other options have failed to resolve a payment issue.”
It is very unfortunate for Virgin Media that the “rare” occasion on which they turned to a debt collector happened to be with a former customer who has the relatively unique privilege of being able to complain about it in a national newspaper. My intention was to fight my case, but that remained only an intention.
Life, which is busy, had a new background noise. The debt collectors had become a persistent nuisance, buzzing and needling and nudging me. They are designed to come into your life as a hindrance. They want you to just want them to go away. The contact is constant, and across all forms of media. There are calls, texts and emails — all sterilised of human contact. They use automated voices and generic messages. They speak in a language that’s a calculated hybrid of fearmongering and friendly, which tries to make a legal threat sound like legal advice. A wolf writing an email in the style of a sheep.
At 11am one Sunday morning, less than two weeks after they first contacted me, an email arrived with the subject line ‘Final Opportunity’. “We’re getting ready for legal proceedings,” it said, explaining that my humble debt of €50.85 would be swelling significantly if and when the debt collectors took me to court to recover “all costs, and any approved court legal costs. The result of this will be an increase in the amount which you’re required to pay,” the email said.
The debt collectors, as I’m sure was their intention, made submission seem like the easiest option. So, against every screaming principle, I paid the €50.85.
In terms of experiences with a debt collector, I got off lightly. The bill, while unexpected, was manageable. At the moment, debt is paralysing families across Ireland. The emotional penalty of using a debt collector on vulnerable families, particularly for smaller amounts, far exceeds the negligible financial penalty that a multi-million euro corporation would suffer for absorbing a bad debt. In the current climate, companies who contract such agencies to chase people should consider if and when such action is justified.