Boom time for Spain's costumed debt collectors

Elizabeth Nash
Monday 08 September 2008 00:00

If you owed a few thousand euros and found your footsteps dogged by a man wearing a top hat, tails and silken cummerbund, wouldn't you pay up rather than face the humiliation of being shadowed by someone dressed like Count Dracula?

As Spain's economy falters, the debt-collecting business is booming and has devised colourful new variants to play on people's embarrassment at having their indebtedness paraded in public. El Cobrador del Frac – "The Debt Collector in Top Hat and Tails" – is a nationwide operation which sends employees dressed like Hollywood villains to collect debts. To underline the message, the theatrically-clad collector carries a black briefcase with his calling spelled out in capital letters.

Chasing bad debts has grown 30 per cent this year, says Juan Carlos Granda, a director of El Cobrador del Frac, adding: "We expect demand for our services to soar in the autumn and winter as the crisis deepens."

Following the collapse of Spain's building boom, the clients who use the company to get their debts repaid are mostly small and medium-sized construction firms. "We advise the debtor initially by fax," says Mr Granda. "Some pay immediately and others don't. So we send a collector round in uniform, in a conspicuously labelled car. They feel ashamed because we have made their indebtedness public."

El Cobrador claims a 70 per cent success rate. Its Madrid office is decked out in plate glass, black leather and steel, its walls adorned with hunting trophies: lions' heads and elephant tusks. It is busy, with bulky men in dark suits. The effect is faintly intimidating, but Mr Granda denies his operation uses strong-arm tactics.

"We use no aggression, we just reclaim our debt. We fulfil an important social function," he insists. "We don't prey on cash-strapped individuals. We are dealing with professional debtors who know all the tricks and who can pay but don't."

Spaniards are often slow to pay debts, a tendency that goes back centuries, says Pere Brachfield, a self-styled "debtologist" at Barcelona's School of Business Administration. Spanish law allows a leisurely 94 days to settle bills, compared with a European average of 30 days. It can take three years to pursue a debtor through the courts, during which time the company may have gone bust or changed its name. No wonder an estimated 60 per cent of creditors write off their debts.

Embarrassment is the best solution, Mr Granda reckons. "We recently had the case of a very wealthy couple who did not pay the €60,000 [£48,000] bill for a wedding banquet," he says. "The wedding company contacted us, we got a guest-list and started phoning up the guests one by one, saying they would be individually responsible for all the lobsters and chicken they had eaten. Eventually, the shame-faced couple paid up."

El Cobrador de Frac, set up 20 years ago, has 550 staff and many imitators. Other collectors dress up as clowns, monks, bull-fighters or masked swordsmen. One always works with his dog and attributes his high success rate to the barking that accompanies his visits. Another plays the bagpipes until payment is received.

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