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Bad Paper

Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

by Jake Halpern

Bad Paper by Jake Halpern X
Bad Paper by Jake Halpern
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2014, 256 pages
    Oct 2015, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Sinéad Fitzgibbon
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About this Book

Print Excerpt


In 2005, when he was thirty-one years old, Aaron Siegel decided to leave his job on Wall Street and move back to his hometown. He was drawn to Buffalo—the self-proclaimed "city of no illusions"—because of its modest scale, its historic neighborhoods, and its general lack of pretension. After so much time in Manhattan and London, something about Buffalo was refreshingly real. What's more, the Siegel family name meant something there and it lent Aaron not just credibility or prestige, but a sense that he belonged—that he mattered. Aaron returned to Buffalo, along with his wife, who was also from upstate New York, and he took a job at a local division of Bank of America specializing in private wealth management. He resolved to stay there until he could figure something else out. The only problem was that he had almost no work to do. "I spent my days spinning around in a chair and throwing pencils at the ceiling," Aaron said. "There was nothing to do. There's very little private wealth to manage here."

There weren't a great many banking opportunities in Buffalo; in truth, there weren't all that many professional opportunities at all. At least one industry, however, was booming: debt collection. Buffalo is a major hub for debt collection and is sometimes even called the industry's capital. This is in large part because one of the biggest collection agencies in the nation, known as Great Lakes Collection Bureau, was once based there. GE Capital purchased Great Lakes in 1997, and soon afterward, many of the company's managers were laid off and opted to strike out on their own. Their companies thrived and expanded. In the greater Buffalo area, more than five thousand people now earn a living as debt collectors. That's more than the number of taxi drivers, bakers, butchers, steelworkers, roofers, crane operators, hotel clerks, and brick masons combined.

As a former banker, Aaron was intrigued that so many people in his midst were toiling to collect on debts that his employer—the bank—had given up on and sold to debt buyers at huge discounts. He sensed an opportunity and, in the fall of 2005, he started his own collection agency. He used $125,000 from his personal savings, bought some "paper," and threw himself—rather blindly—into the world of collections. His plan was to continue working at Bank of America by day and run the collection agency after hours.

When it came to hiring collectors, Buffalo proved to be an auspicious locale, both because there were so many veteran collectors to hire and because so many of the city's other residents were so eager to find paying work. Buffalo remains among the poorest cities in the nation. Almost one-third of the people within its limits live in poverty—double the national average. Growing up in a very affluent family, Aaron says that he rarely interacted with the city's poorer residents. "I knew they existed," he told me. "These were folks that you bumped into going to the store, but there wasn't a whole lot of interaction because Buffalo is very stratified." Yet when Aaron launched his own collection agency, these were precisely the sorts of people who applied for work—and their ranks included ex-cons, drug addicts, twenty-somethings without high school diplomas, and a variety of other hard-luck cases.

"Oh my God, they were like thugs," recalled Aaron. "Everybody had their hustle and flow or whatever the hell it was—why they were the best, the greatest." He quickly came to realize, however, that the more clean-cut types simply wouldn't get the job done. As he put it: "You realize that you're sitting on an investment and you've hired a bunch of boy scouts who can't turn any money." What he needed were telephone hustlers. The problem with the hustlers, explained Aaron, was that they hustled not just the debtors, but him as well. One of the first truly great collectors that Aaron hired—an overweight, womanizing, aspiring bodybuilder—robbed him of several thousand dollars by counterfeiting the firm's checks.

Excerpted from Bad Paper by Jake Halpern. Copyright © 2014 by Jake Halpern. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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