In the last five years, loan agencies have spread their talons wide. Offline and online, they are everywhere. Besides their primary function of loan services, they are renowned for the wilful disbursement of their loans to unsuspecting customers and their extreme tactics of defaming them when they don’t repay on time. FIJ’s Opeyemi Lawal applied to work in two loan companies in Lagos as a loan collection specialist. Her story details the abuse, the pressure and overwork that make loan agencies weaponise defamation.
Modu had plans to repay his loan after 14 days from his cassava harvest proceeds. However, life was quick to get in the way as his cassava was infested with a mosaic disease and he barely had enough to feed his family.
Realising he had a debt obligation, Modu reached out to LCredit to explain his fate and request an extension for repayment, but his request was declined and what followed were throngs of defamatory calls and messages pressuring him to repay his loan.
These defamatory messages wielded by the loan collector as a collection tool only hardened his heart. Modu vowed never to repay.
“After bearing the shame for days from family and friends who were contacts on my phone, I made up my mind never to pay back a penny. They have done their worst already,” he told FIJ.
The loan collector who handled Modu’s case blamed it on the pressure they face in the Chinese-owned loan companies.
In nearly three years of social justice reporting, FIJ has reported over 50 depressing stories of how loan agencies nearly snuff out their customers’ lives. The stories might come in different narrations but they all point at the same truth of how loan companies wield defamation as a tool to make life miserable for their customers.
I wanted to see for myself what steps lead up to defamation in these loan companies, how they also trap some of their customers in their wicked loan schemes. So I applied to work with Newedge Finance Limited, the owners of Palmcredit, Easybuy and five other cash loans products.
GETTING A JOB AT NEWEDGE FINANCE LIMITED
When I first walked into Newedge Finance Limited in Ogba, Lagos, on July 27, it was to interview for the role of a Collection Officer. I didn’t need much of a long leg to be scheduled for the interview, as loan agencies usually recruit staff every day.
My fixer had told me that every day of the week, at least one employee joins the team of loan companies in Lagos. These companies are like venom, they need more people to spread their poison.
To show up at Newedge Finance Limited, my colleague had first placed a call to Damola, the Human Resource Manager of Raytill (even though the company is known as Emtill Solutions) on July 26 to claim that they were both members of a now defunct Whatsapp group and he had seen Damola advertise roles for different positions back in January 2023.
It was easy for Damola, whom I would later find to be a tall, middle-aged dark-complexioned man with chubby cheeks, to believe him. He asked that I send him a copy of the CV I had cooked up on WhatsApp, and in five hours I was scheduled for an interview the next day.
I would realise in the coming days that the CV request was simply a formality. All I actually needed to be a loan collector was a functioning android phone, the will to present myself at work daily and the ability to make a living out of hurling insults and throwing curse words at whomever is on the receiving end of my anger.
For a thing, loan collectors are never in a pleasant mood whenever they are on the phone. Even though aggression wasn’t listed as a criterion for the job, it was a necessary tool every collector must have at hand. One for the mischievousness of customers who try to default on their debts, and the other for something to fall back on when the Chinese bosses mount pressure on you.
The next day, I showed up at Lasena Building, a blue and green painted five-storeyed building also shared by the Oakland Business School, as Tolani Ojo. Nothing outside the building indicated the business being run there except for a large banner hung inside the corridor leading to the offices.
I later learnt that loan companies are careful not to display their businesses outside for fear of being rounded up by regulatory bodies, as they constantly run afoul of the law. This also prevents customers who are hurt from tracking their offices for official business or for revenge.
There, I met Decency Gerald who interviewed me alongside Blessing, a nursing mother, who was desperate for the role. I knew I was going to get the job after a few rounds of questions common at interviews, such as: “Let us meet you.” “What is your highest qualification?” “What job experiences do you have?” “Who is a loan collection officer?”
I was surer after Gerald insisted that working on Saturdays was compulsory, which didn’t sit well with Blessing who had a toddler to look after even though she had more experience. The only experience I listed on my CV was having worked at a non-existent Becky Supermarket in Akure, Ondo State, as a supervisor.
The entire interview only lasted seven minutes and it ended with Gerald saying we would receive a text message from the company over the weekend if we were considered fit for the role.
True to his words, two days after the interview, I got a text message inviting me to train as a collection officer with Newedge Finance Limited. This was the beginning of a search for truth and initiation into a madhouse.
‘WELCOME TO AN INTERNATIONAL COMPANY’
On July 31, at 8:45 am, the white-painted large training hall on the second floor was filled to the brim. Colourful plastic chairs and ash wooden tables filled up the hall which brimmed with the chattering of the new recruits who wondered what future awaited them at the loan company. I noticed that Blessing was not one of them. She would later tell me that she didn’t take the offer because of her toddler, as there was no one to look after him on weekends.
All new recruits were from different backgrounds, age groups and had different qualifications. Some were fresh from secondary school. Some National Diploma degree holders. Some were first degree holders. Some Master’s degree holders while others simply had no formal education.
It would turn out that being able to recover loans was more important than our qualifications.
I met Gerald again, but this time the fair-skinned young man was the course representative of over 100 of us. The hall brimmed with hope and optimism when he said, “Welcome to an international company. You are now working in an international firm which is owned by the Chinese. Everything you will be doing here is not in the Nigerian way. It will be done according to international standards. So, count yourself lucky.”
The room erupted in cheers. Whether it was the excitement of working in an international firm or the prospect of working with Chinese nationals, I couldn’t decipher which, but the determination of the trainees to devote themselves to working a job that would encourage them to tear another human down could not be hidden.
Soon, another trainer who simply identified as Joseph came onboard. He integrated us on getting into the organisation and told us everything taught in the session must be kept secret. Before his session began, the trainers had compelled us to either turn off our phones or silence them. One recalcitrant lady who attempted to take a picture was demanded to delete it immediately.
Also, Gerald would threatened that there are cameras around and every of our actions were monitored by the Chinese who would catch anyone breaking the no-gadget rule.
Joseph told us that Emtill Solutions was a strategic partner of Newedge Finance Limited and was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) in 2022. He stated that whatever regulation applied to Emtill also applied to Newedge.
However, FIJ’s check on the CAC’s website showed that while Emtill was registered in 2021, Newedge had been in operation since 2018.
In contrast to how they operate in reality, Joseph told us that the organisation’s vision statement was, “To add value to our customers, partnering with them to achieve their financial objectives and aspirations. The company also seeks to exceed our customer’s expectations in the delivery of our services.”
He stated the vision statement as, “To be accessible, valued at the first point of call, in the provision of financial services to our customers.”
The training progressed and we found out that Newedge Finance Limited was the product owner of EasyBuy, Palmcredit, New Credit, Xcross Cash, X Cash, Cash Loan, Naira Loan and ForMoney, including a VIP plan it calls Palmcredit Xcross and EasyBuy Xcross.
Besides the many dressing rules and dozens of dos and don’ts, what piqued my interest was the different departments in the firm. Joseph told us that while our role as collectors was responsible for calling overdue customers for repayments and reduction of loan loss or bad debt, there is a telesales department that is responsible for selling the company’s loan products to new and existing customers by initiating sales with them.
On my third day there, I would later understand that this telesales department also had a target amount for disbursements if they must retain their jobs. In one of the afternoon sessions when I asked Gerald how to handle customers who claimed they didn’t apply for the loans, he denied that customers could get loans without applying for them.
“It is not possible we disburse our loans to you without you pressing the apply option. It doesn’t happen that way. That person must have clicked on apply. No one gives you a loan you don’t apply for,” Gerald claimed.
However, in a contradictory statement, he finished by saying that pressure on the telesales department to meet up with targets could force them to disburse loans to qualified and unqualified customers.
“Well, maybe those in charge of disbursing loans have not met their targets for the day and so disburse the cash to qualified and unqualified customers to meet up with their targets,” he said.
In December 2022, FIJ reported how a N70,000 loan was forced on Olumide Joseph, a Palmcredit customer who had recently repaid N5,000 from the same loan outfit.
Also, a report by Nairametrics on August 15 corroborated FIJ’s findings that Newedge’s telesales department staff were given targets for disbursements and a customer did not have to apply before getting the loans. The report added that the telesales team were supplied with phone numbers of potential borrowers which they must call and persuade to take the loans.
Another FIJ report revealed how Olumide Olaniyan, another loan victim, was credited N6,200 while browsing through the terms and conditions of CamelLoan. The collector went ahead to extort an additional N5,500 from him alongside heaps of threats and defamatory messages.
‘WE DO NOT DEFAME OUR CUSTOMERS’
Throughout the three days of full training I attended, one common chorus we all heard was ‘we do not defame our customers’ from every single trainer who stood before us.
This would turn out to be a lie, as the only way all collectors could ensure they retained their jobs was by defaming customers. There were no two ways about it; you either defame a customer and recover your loans, or you don’t and go home.
Grace, a dark-complexioned middle-aged woman who had her wig packed in a bun behind her head throughout my time there, stood before us in a white shirt and blue jeans. Her clear voice rang loudly as she walked across the room most of the time.
She held about two sessions with us, and each time she taught, her voice would ring the message ‘we do not defame our customers’.
She would walk around the hall and then pause to remind us of the consequences of defaming our customers. “Our customers didn’t beg us for money. We were the ones who asked them to take our loans. If they do not take these loans, you won’t have a job. So, do not defame our customers.”
She went further to emphasise that poor people aren’t the only ones who take loans from them, contrary to popular belief. She said some people are established professionals in their fields.
“It is not only broke people that take loans from us. When you begin to handle cases, you will see the names of some contacts saved as barristers, Alhajis and so on,” Grace told us.
“They come to us for money because they need to balance up a figure. Someone who has N50,000 or N100,000 but needs N7,000 to make up the required amount. They come to us for loans too, so you have to treat our customers with respect. Our products are not for poor people alone.”
‘YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN IF YOU GET SUED’
Alex Ikwele, the compliance manager of Newedge Finance, was our trainer on the third morning. He told us his job was to ensure that we did not complicate his job, as he had tons of litigations on his table mostly based on cases of defamation against customers.
He said customers now know they can sue the companies that breach their privacy on data or use defamatory words on them, so collectors had to be careful how they treat and speak to customers.
“Loan apps are now being closed down due to data privacy breaches and customers are now wiser as they know they can sue companies, so we beg them,” he said.
“We beg them to settle out of court and plead with them to accept N200,000 settlement over a loan of N10,000.”
Right on Ikwele’s heels was Gerald’s warning against defaming customers or abusing them even when they provoke us to anger. He told us there was a quality control team that listened to conversations and reviewed them to enforce compliance.
But then I asked Gerald if the organisation would provide us with legal support should we ever get sued by a customer.
“This is why you are being trained. Don’t go and get yourself sued. If you do, you are on your own.”
‘RECOVER LOANS OR NO JOB’
It will be interesting to note that the training didn’t guarantee our jobs; we were constantly reminded of how we only had one leg in and the other out.
On the morning of the second day, Grace introduced us to the software used by the organisation to track debtors, and how to use it as an instrument of collection. It is called the Moneymaker app.
The Moneymaker app would display the cases to be handled by each collector daily, and also track the collector’s recovery progress. It would send warning flashes to collectors when they are lagging behind or when they did not recover money.
This app also contains every detail about the customer THAT the collector needs to know. From the kind of loan to the amount, the overdue days, the emergency contacts to call, the customer’s loan record and the collectors who have worked on the customer’s case previously. Collectors are to call or send messages to the debtors via the app but could as well use their phones.
We were reminded not to send defamatory messages via the app or threaten customers while calling them through Moneymaker. But this doesn’t mean we couldn’t defame or threaten them via other means.
During Joseph’s session, he had listed the mediums of harassment as Telegram, WhatsApp, phone calls and text messages.
Everyone had a uniform password and login ID but we were mandated to change our passwords as soon as we signed in. When we logged in, we observed that we were all assigned 60-68 EasyBuy cases in the M5 stage.
Every loan not repaid within the stipulated time had an overdue stage.
- S1- 1- 7 days overdue.
- S2 – 8-15 days overdue.
- S3 – 16-30 days overdue.
- M2 – 31-60 days overdue.
- M3 – 61-90 days overdue.
- M4 – 91-120 days overdue.
- M5 – 121 days and above overdue.
The M5 which we were assigned was more notorious as it signified that the customer had consistently refused to pay. It was a tough task for us newbies even though the cases had been previously treated by people who were more experienced than us.
The lady who took our attendance every morning, whose name I didn’t get to know, sang a constant tune that recovering loans was essential for our employment.
From the outset, they had announced to us that we would be writing a test on Friday, the fifth day of the training, to gauge our knowledge of the job. The pass mark was 70 but that score with no recovery was no-guarantee for the job.
“Make money as you are making calls, even if you score 100 in the test and you do not recover anything, you do not stand a chance. Everything you are doing is about recovery,” she said.
Even though this sounded like a subtle threat, it was real as collectors had fixed percentages of the amount to recover daily and weekly. As newbies, we only had one month to learn the ropes after which we might get kicked out.
This pressure on collectors by the company pushes them to wield the only weapon they are skilled at: threats and defamation.
Gerald, during one of his numerous sessions with us, also said that our growth in the organisation would be determined by our input towards recovery. “Put in your mind and recover money for the Chinese; they will reward you. This is because hard work doesn’t go unnoticed by them,” he told the trainees.
“Anyone who recovers the highest amount at the end of this training will get a reward of N5,000. It shows that the Chinese are appreciative of the good work you do.
“In no time, you will also rise to be a team lead as there is room for tons of opportunities in this organisation. You will also make extra money aside from your basic salary of N35,000.
“You see this work you are doing, I have done it before. I came in as a collector before I joined the training department a few years later. So, work hard and recover money. That is what guarantees your real employment.
“Even when you get home, you don’t have to stop calling your customers. It’s all about recovery. That is the utmost thing.”
On my way home on the second day of training, I sat in a bus filled with loan collectors who had attained employee status. They discussed the day’s duty and complained about the risks of working as a loan collector.
A lady who sat next to me said, “I have four WhatsApp numbers. Once customers report one and WhatsApp blocks it, I keep reaching out to them via the other one. That way, I get to send messages and continue my job.”
But I didn’t understand why it was so.
Another collector, Fola, I got to know her name after I asked if I could learn the basics of the job from her as I was still a trainee. I had heard someone say she was a full-time staff compared to others who were just contract employees.
Fola, fair-skinned and slim, sat on the laps of the lady with four Whatsapp numbers and rubbed her forehead tiredly.
“Most people who work around here (she was referring to the Ojota-Oregun-Ogba axis) are loan workers,” she said.
“However, Newedge has the largest number of collectors. We are the most in terms of population. There should be about 800 of us,” she said with pride. The emotion couldn’t be hidden in her voice.
I realised that Fola could be right with her estimation. In my bucket (the number of people trained at the same time), we were a little over 80 and a new bucket with a little less or more than the number is trained every new week.
Also, when I got a glimpse of the halls on the third and fourth floor, there were about more than a hundred people or more in a single hall and there are several halls in the building. Again, the number of people I met trooping out of the building during break and at close of work spoke of how many people make a living out of defamation.
On the third afternoon, August 2, after our one hour break, Gerald came to announce that we needed to vacate the training hall, as the Chinese team wanted to hold a meeting there. He then took us to one of Easybuy’s halls in tens and asked us to sit with collectors who had also gone through the training and were duly employed.
What I saw in there was the exact opposite of all the boring lectures I had to endure. It was a madhouse filled with chaos and mayhem. Dozens of collectors screamed at the top of their voices.
Every single minute of the two hours we spent there, at least one collector was cursing and threatening to ruin a customer.
“I will ruin you. I will publish your details online. I will send it to all your contacts and nothing will happen,” a collector shouted at someone on the other end of the phone.
Every data privacy lesson Ikwele had taught us was invalid there, as collectors threatened customers in the presence of team leads who only walked about and did nothing. I couldn’t hide my shock.
The two ladies I was attached to asked if I had recovered money yet, when I answered in the negative, they told me that loan collectors who had passed the same training I was undergoing at the time actually send defamatory messages to customers but they do it discreetly.
“We do it in a way that the Quality Control team does not get to find out about it. This is because without the defamatory messages, customers will not pay, and if you don’t recover money, they will send you away,” one of the ladies explained.
They then told me to get multiple sim cards besides my main phone number so that I could use them to send these messages to customers when the need arose.
“See, once you get inside, you will know how the job works. Even the Quality Control team know we do this; they are only looking for who to catch red-handed,” the other lady said.
“You will also have to learn to lie to customers. Learn to tell them any lie just to make them pay; and once they do, block them off.”
One of them then added: “Don’t worry, you will get this job in Jesus’ name. My younger sister also underwent training last week and she was lucky to be employed because she recovered money.
“Just calm down and put your eyes (sic). They won’t send you away in Jesus’ name.”
The shock of it all rendered me too numb to mutter ‘amen’.
When we returned to our training hall, Gerald stood before us again and asked to know our experience interacting with our senior colleagues. While a few people were muttering their responses, he then asked, “Did you see anyone abuse or curse customers?”
The ‘yes’ from the room was deafening and resounding. Gerald only smiled and pulled his ears before saying, “Whatever you saw upstairs remains there. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I have said my own. Just ensure you do not get yourself caught.”
GETTING KICKED OUT
I missed the fourth day of the training after I was trying to follow a trail hinted by Blessing, one of my seat partners. She had mentioned during a conversation that she used to work with a loan company whose loan products include Iustus, Aje loan and others.
She also mentioned that, unlike in Newedge where the supervisors would tell you not to defame customers, her team leaders at their former place of work encouraged them to do it.
“We don’t care about the medium of recovery. Sometimes they would ask us to design the obituary of the debtors, expose their details and call them out online.
“Nobody cares about how you get the money; just ensure you recover the company’s money.”
I tried to follow the trail of this company situated around Oregun but was unsuccessful. She had also told me that getting the company might be difficult as they operate in hidden areas for fear of regulatory agencies.
So, I returned to Newedge on Friday to complete my training and then take the test. When I joined the training on Monday, we were told that anyone who missed a day of training would have to start all over.
I resumed that Friday morning and asked what I missed the previous day. They said only calls were made and nothing more. However, I wasn’t so lucky with recovery all the times I called the customers.
It was one story or the other. One even went as far as saying that the person who bought the EasyBuy phone on credit had passed on a month earlier. Other numbers were simply not existing or unreachable.
That morning, the lady with the attendance did a role call but omitted my name. People’s names were removed from the attendance as they missed each day of training.
She might have figured that the people in the hall were more than the ones on the role call, so she did a head count. With the head count, she had 68 and was outraged.
“Who didn’t hear his or her name and is seated here?”
This continued a few more times until I was pushed out by colleagues who knew I was absent the previous day. They had wanted me to beg her but that would have complicated my story.
I stood before her and she asked from the class what judgement someone who had missed a day of training deserved. They said the person would have to start all over. She then asked that I pick my bag and leave.
Few minutes before she kicked me out, she had also sent home a lady who didn’t take permission from the trainers to get water downstairs. The lady had told her seat mates hoping she would get back in time because the training had not started.
The attendance lady had justified it by saying, “You are looking for a job and you’re acting like no one can talk to you. It’s not possible. Besides, what do I tell the Chinese when they ask?”
This is the first of a two-part investigative series.
This story was produced with support from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability project (CMEDIA) funded by the MacArthur Foundation
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