With all the trouble that people are having paying their bills, you might think that this would be a boom time for debt collectors -- those shameless mercenaries charged with harassing deadbeat credit cardholders.

But it isn't. Although delinquencies are up and there are tons of accounts for collectors to call on, too many debtors simply don't have the means to send money. Jobless defaulters who are maxed out across the board and have no savings are of little use to collection agencies. Worse, credit markets have tightened making it more difficult for some collection agencies to buy the zombie debt that is their livelihood.

Portfolio reports that NCO Group, the largest of the debt collection agencies, recently had its credit rating cut by Standard & Poor's. Oh the irony: a collection agency running into problems with its creditors. Who calls them during dinner if they default?

It's easy to look upon debt collectors with disdain but the fact is that they play an important role in helping banks collect money that people promised to pay back. Without persistent debt collectors, interest rates would be a lot higher for people who do pay on time.

The good news is that the difficulty lenders are having in collecting on delinquent account could lead to long-term changes in underwriting standards that will save banks from future writedowns and also put a stop to a system that thrives by helping people overextend themselves.

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