Going through my correspondence file – by which I mean the 30-inch pile of papers under my desk – I came across three letters, each with this year's date on it, each from a different debt collector, each asking for £11. They refer to a single transaction with a mobile phone company.
Why are three different debt collectors chasing the same debt?
One is headed FORMAL DEMAND. This is in red, to show they're serious. Another says PRE-LITIGATION DEPARTMENT. That's only in black and white. And a pre-litigation department isn't frightening at all. They can't even litigate.
"You have failed to enter into a repayment plan," one says. That's true. I have failed to do that. I have failed to do anything other than to ignore them. Though I seem to remember writing to at least one of them some years ago telling them to stop annoying me.
The sequence of events started before the end of boom and bust. At the time, I was doing what I could to keep the boom going. I was remortgaging the house as and when required in order to keep us all in the luxuries to which we had become accustomed. The family needed mobile phones, so in I went to the nearest high street mobile shop, braved the humorous stares of the spiky-haired, gelled-up sales assistants and filled out the triplicate paperwork for three phone contracts.
The attendants all had that special look and manner of mobile phone salesmen and, it's true, I was painfully out of place with my tie and coat. I might have had a waistcoat on. Asking for it, essentially, I see that now.
There was a problem with the ID I'd brought along. Two letters from a utility and a building society statement. The utility bill was over three months old. I was sent back home to fetch a newer one. But then there was another problem. The building society statement had a zero balance.
"The account has recently been opened, and funds have yet to be transferred," I explained.
"So it's not an active account. The ID has to be active."
"The account is active, it is actively waiting for a funds transfer which is happening tomorrow."
"But the account is empty. It has a zero balance." His manager confirmed a zero balance wouldn't be acceptable as ID. They were a mobile phone company, you see. I went off on my bicycle again to fetch the ultimate proof of identity. But my passport was grossly inadequate.
"Your signature on the application form isn't the same on the passport. They're different."
"It's 10 years old," I yelped. "My signature has changed very slightly, as anyone might expect in a decade!"
"Can't you make it more like the one on the form?" wheedled one of the salesmen. "We'll print you off another one? Can't you make the end bit go up and along like on the passport?"
Ten years before, my optimistic signature had gone up at the end; by then it followed a more downward slope. It wouldn't go up, not for anything. "No, look, it's not going up at the end. I'm sorry, we can't accept ID if the signatures don't both go up at the end," the manager said. So, a little too late perhaps, I assembled my dignity and left, under their yet-more-humorous gaze. And then they sent me a bill for £11, so I ignored it. Years went by. There was a letter from a debt collector demanding the money. I ignored that too. Then there was a letter from a debt collector's agent. Then a letter from another debt collector altogether.
They've been sending the same FORMAL DEMAND and PRE-LITIGATION letters for a year or so now. I've written to one of them once but it hasn't stopped them. I think what's happened is the mobile phone company sold the paperwork to a financial services enterprise who packaged it up with a lot of other questionable undertakings and sold them on the open market as a securitised debt package.
They might have said, "What if I bid for these 40,000 loan agreements all live, all liable, all litigable. There's 20m quid in there. £20m taken out and defaulted on, yours to collect. Yours not for £10m, not £5m, I'm not asking £2.5m, it's yours for a million quid. You'll make a million just by posting out letters with FORMAL DEMAND on the top. Are you saying to me that you're going to fail to collect 95 per cent of these debts? Are you having a laugh? Are you a comedian? I'm robbing my children to give you this!"
And some 23-year-old high street bank official with annoying hair – the brother, perhaps of the lad in the mobile phone shop – would have bought the securities package and sold it, or subdivided it, or repackaged it, or mixed it with another disassembled debt package and added it to the company's books as an asset.
But it's junk. Or worse than junk because it's a liability. And companies are still playing pass the parcel with it, selling it on to suckers, round and round it goes, consuming more energy than it can ever produce.
I bet it's passed through the Royal Bank of Scotland's books. I bet HBOS has bought and sold it. I bet someone got a bonus for buying it and another bonus for selling it.
And that's my little sliver of ownership in the catastrophe still affecting the global economy.