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Some people are born to professions; others have professions thrust upon them. Though I was under the illusion that I merely published the Northwest Side Story—a local monthly paper—the failure of my advertisers to pay their debts made me realize I had another job: I was actually the First National Bank of Itell.

When I stopped publishing the Northwest Side Story in October, advertisers owed me approximately $25,000, much of which was more than 30 days overdue. Two months later, after daily hounding, I had reduced the total debt to $5,500. Today, three months later, I am still owed $3,000, much of which I have placed in the “when hell freezes over” category.

Collecting from store-owners caused me more than once to reach for the Tagamet. Some of them—often immigrants—feigned ignorance of the U.S. Postal Service: They would pay me only if I dropped by their store, even though they never made appointments, kept appointments, or told their staffs where they were. When I arrived at one client’s shop, I found out that he was spending a two-month vacation in the mother country.

Another client owed me $300 plus interest. I made five trips to collect. Once, he forgot his checkbook. Twice, his checks bounced. Another time, he promised me in advance that he would have payment in full: When he arrived, 20 minutes late, he offered me only $100. “Come back next Monday and we will see what we can do,” he said. Did he expect me to bring a bedroll? I took the C-note, happily.

I was not so fortunate with other clients. Determined bill-avoiders mastered the endless delay. Some prattled about forthcoming checks out of whose bounty they would pay me. Other clients were less talkative and more combative: “I submitted the bill for payment.” Or, “We don’t pay bills until the end of the month, year, millennium, etc.” Or the most popular stall tactic—the dog-ate-my-homework strategy of bill-paying—”I seem to have lost the invoice. Could you fax over a copy?”

The clients who seemed constitutionally incapable of sticking a check in the mail (or returning a telephone call) began consuming a large amount of my time—close to 50 percent. My goal when I called these deadbeats was to convince them that my invoice was the most important one they had to pay—a tough sell to a restaurant-owner whose food supplier is threatening to cut him off for nonpayment.

Clients adopted creative tactics as soon as I started pestering them. Some viewed the call as a time to renegotiate the bill—even though the invoice is backed by a signed contract.

One real estate agent tried to renegotiate his terms whenever I called to collect his debt. Merely calling him, in his view, was an affront to his dignity. Our protracted, almost daily conversations would usually end in an oral agreement. But it was like Groundhog Day: The next day, it was as if the previous day had never occurred. When he failed to make payment at the promised time, he would deny that he had ever agreed to the terms. So I began documenting our agreements, which upset him. “Am I not a man of dignity?” No, you are someone who bought an ad who had no money to pay for it. I eventually threw him out of the paper, charged him a cancellation fee, refused to accept his calls, and barred him from advertising in the paper. The last I heard

from him, I was absolutely, positively going to receive my $300 by Thanksgiving. I should have asked him to specify which year.

Other clients would get hung up over interest charges. “Our company policy is that we do not pay the finance charges.” Fine, but do you also have a company policy to pay bills within 30 days? Do you also have a company policy that prohibits the company president from signing contracts where he agrees to pay interest charges?

One client, who still owes over $800, is an amiable sort. We had done favors for each other and often talked about matters beyond the business realm. After a tough summer involving expensive legal battles, he took his family on a two-week scuba-diving vacation, somewhere in the Pacific. He fell in love with underwater photography and started telling me about all the expensive equipment he planned to buy. As I slipped into the conversation my request for payment, his tone turned icy. He claimed he was broke and could not afford to pay me. Well, at least now I know why he was broke. Underwater photography will clean you out every time.

When dunning for dollars, I always appreciate a little honesty, even when the client is screwing me. One client, who owes over $1,000, will not pay me because (he claims) that no one responded to his ad. As if advertising comes with a money-back guarantee. He can afford to pay. I see his ad in other D.C. publications. He just does not want to pay me. And the sad truth is that, despite having signed a contract, he does not have to. The law is not on my side.

District law and the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act mostly benefit the debtor. As a corporation, I need an attorney to sue in District courts, even in small claims court. At $100 to $200 per hour, attorneys will chew up what you are owed by lunch. Even if you win a favorable judgment, a savvy small businessperson can hide assets the way a card cheat hides aces. Try going after corporate assets and you find that the corporation is officially broke, even though the president drives a Mercedes. Try going after the president personally and you find yourself back in court—ka-ching, ka-ching—paying more attorneys’ fees. All this work for a $500 debt? It’s better to spend your time selling new ads to new clients.

Collection agencies can’t help either. Nationally, only 18.9 percent of delinquent debts sent to collection agencies are collected, according to Mike Sutherland, president of American Collections Enterprise Inc. The percentage for advertising debts is probably even lower, he speculated.

When I could not cajole or force the deadbeats into paying, I immediately thought of revenge. How about smearing their reputations? Who would want to engage a home contractor who skips out on bills? Unfortunately, if I use this approach, I would find myself at the wrong end of a lawsuit. Privacy laws prohibit the publication of a person’s (un)creditworthiness.

It’s also virtually impossible to sully a deadbeat’s personal credit rating. Recently, the big three credit rating bureaus—TRW, Equifax, and Transunion—decided not to process certain types of credit complaints—among them newspaper advertising. Their rationale, according to Sutherland, was that the companies did not have the personnel to deal with the volume of advertising complaints they received.

Having run out of options, I still call clients who owe me money, more out of habit than any expectation that they will pay. Of the $3,000 still owed me, I expect to see about $1,000 (as long as I keep up my efforts). The rest I’ll write off when my stubborn streak abates.

Now let’s see how long it takes Washington City Paper to pay me for this article.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Ward Sutton.