Help UAE debtors rather than judging their behaviour

Getting into debt is never an ideal situation but employing aggressive and threatening tactics will only hinder, not help, a debtor working hard to repay their liabilities, says Nima Abu Wardeh.

Gary Clement for The National
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I recently received an email from someone who left the UAE for personal reasons. As a result he cannot come back - much as he'd like to. I'm sharing his experience because it brings home a few things that are specific to life as an expat - things that could happen to any of us. Let's call this person Joe (not his real name).
Joe's father was seriously ill. Joe applied for, and was refused leave. He was told that if he went anyway he'd lose his job and face consequences. Joe decided that family comes first and got on a plane. He is very happy he did so because he got to say goodbye to his father.
Realising he had no job to go back to, and fearing he'd been registered as an absconder and loan defaulter, instead of walking away from his obligations - as so many do - he decided to honour them. So, this is what he did: "I first wrote letters to all the banks explaining what had happened and managed to secure agreements that I could still transfer money to them, which showed my commitment to them (that) I wanted to pay back," Joe says.
He had left behind Dh350,000 worth of debt with four different banks. The banks appeared happy with the new arrangements to pay back what he owes.
Then things changed. "After a few months I started to get these phone calls, emails, faxes to my home, my family home and even my workplace," says Joe. "All the research I had done and then it started to come true and I was ready for the collection agents."
The research he refers to is what he found out before deciding to leave the country. He had been looking into the "what if?" What if he was put down as having done a runner? What if his work stated he was missing? What if they notified the bank? What if?
In doing so, he came across the many stories about collection agents. Perhaps some are part urban myth, but from what I have been told, from many differing sources, the stories of the people on the receiving end of these agents' techniques match up. And it is worrying.
Joe referred to the names of the agencies - but I cannot share them for legal reasons.
This is how Joe describes what he calls "The most ruthless, cold-hearted, law-breaking criminals that ever lived".
He, and everyone I've come across who has had dealings with these agents, refers to things like total disregard for privacy as well as very threatening aggressive behaviour.
Let us take a step back. People who are in financial trouble are often so mentally and emotionally stressed that they feel physically ill and cannot sleep. It can get so bad that they feel there is no way out and take their own lives.
This is not an issue to be taken lightly.
There is often an element of personal strife too - betrayal, financial infidelity and more. In this person's case he had taken out loans to help the woman he loved. They were both paying back the money borrowed, as their life was a shared one.
Unfortunately for him, she had kept her husband back home a secret and simply left the country one day, saddling him with her debt - and the shock of finding out the truth.
Of course the banking sector needs to outsource various elements of their business. One of which is collecting outstanding debt. That's not the issue.
The issue is the conduct, values and strategies of the agencies acting on behalf of banks.
Some of the stories are simply unbelievable. They include showing up at their place of work to shame and threaten them in front of colleagues and posting threats and aggressive messages to people via social media.
Joe says he was ready. What he went on to explain is that because he knew of these tactics, he was prepared for them. He didn't fall apart. Many others aren't so fortunate.
Being in financial trouble is scary. Instead of penalising those who come forward and genuinely want to set their financial track record straight, we need to embrace them. How about creating a safe haven and empowering people to get on top of their money, and their life, rather than attacking and disabling? Otherwise no one wins.
Nima Abu Wardeh is the founder of the personal finance website cashy.me. You can reach her at nima@cashy.me
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