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Russia’s Prosecutor General has disclosed the results of an investigation revealing that private collection agencies have been using threats and sheer force to recover debts on behalf of banks. The revelation seems to be part of a troubling trend in which citizens are being intimidated by higher powers, whether official or private, and provides some credence to critics’ claims that everyday repression in Russia may be just as present as ever.
According to the investigator’s office, collectors are employing an array of dubious and, in some cases, shocking methods to recover debts and overdue loans for banks, News.ru reported. Investigators also allege that these private agencies often claim to have connections to official government bodies in an effort to beguile and coerce the victims into providing the payments.
“Everywhere in the activities of collection agencies, prosecutors have revealed evidence of threats to the life and health of citizens, intimidation, beatings, home invasions, and the dissemination of information discrediting borrowers,” the prosecutor’s office said on July 17, Interfax reported.
The news stems from a June 28 decree by the Supreme Court that allows banks to pass the responsibility of collecting overdue loans to private agencies. Yet the banks themselves, many with government connections, appear to be in collusion with the debt collectors in what amounts to elaborate schemes. The prosecutor went on to say that banks have illegally raised the commission fees only after offering clients a loan, and in some cases have failed to even inform the customers of the hike in fees, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported. This, in turn, lays out a clear-cut mission for the collectors.
Critics have railed against the practice, claiming a lack of regulatory oversight grants banks and their intimidators-for-hire free range in going after debtors. “Apparently, ‘telephone justice’ played a crucial role in the Supreme Court’s decision,” Confederation of Consumer Societies head Dmitry Yanin told Novye Izvestia, referring to the Soviet practice of judges calling their masters for orders. “This is a result of lobbying by banks within the Supreme Court, which means that this ugliness associated with the collection agencies will continue.”
Especially in the past year, consumers have been increasingly vocal about banks allegedly invading their privacy by providing collection agencies with their personal information. The information was used by the collectors to track down debtors and, in ways perhaps reminiscent of the wild 1990s, ostensibly force the debtors to cough up the funds through dubious or even criminal means. For instance, in Chelyabinsk, according to Gazeta.ru, one collection agency had been sending threatening letters to borrowers. As a result, the Prosecutor General has asked the Ministry for Economic Development to draft a law that would protect consumers – without tricky loopholes.
Yet what’s more, according to media reports the private collection agencies employed by banks have been using debtors’ personal information to illegally spread it through the Internet, reportedly as another form of coercion. This, however, is a trend whose echoes resonate in other spheres of life as well. In recent months, for example, an apparent surge in wire-tapping and blackmail has stoked fears among private citizens that “Big Brother” has – in one form or another – crept back into their lives.
What started out as an alleged Kremlin smear campaign against opposition leaders during a tumultuous protest and campaign season – such as the leaking of telephone and personal exchanges between activists – has apparently spread to everyday life. A recent survey by Russian recruiting service HeadHunter found that more than half of those earning more than $6,500 per month fear that their employer is monitoring their personal correspondence, according to a Newsweek report earlier this month.
Out of more than 7,000 respondents, the report said, nearly 60 percent of employees had been summoned by their boss for an “unpleasant conversation,” while eight percent said they had been fired over something their employer dug up from personal correspondence or otherwise through the computer.
While experts said that the sharing of information – particularly among private companies and entities – has not necessarily increased over the years, the technology used to get that information and use it has. According to security expert Andrei Soldatov, this, when combined with the vacuum of information on the topic of personal privacy, lies at the heart of the matter. “[Employers] use these new technological advances without any second thoughts about privacy issues because of the lack of such debates in Russia,” he said. “People mostly think that security and better management matters more than privacy.”
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