When receivables stubbornly remain unpaid despite a fusillade of dunning letters, a back office can look outside for help. But finding the appropriate professional is likely to be frustrating, even though basic collection conduct is federally regulated. Some 30 states muddy the picture by adding their own provisions, and agencies themselves often do the same. To determine how the fundamentals differ, Inc. queried agencies around the country (see key below), soliciting each one's terms for going after both consumer and commercial delinquents. Here are some of the variables:

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General Rules: If an agency collects nothing, you pay it nothing. If it collects, it retains a percentage of the amount collected, based on the nature, size, and age of the account.

ABC: On consumer accounts of less than $300, agency gets 50%; of more than $300, 35%. On commercial accounts of up to $300, 50%; $300 to $2,000, 25%; $2,000 to $10,000, 20%; more than $10,000, 15%

ATF: If average balance is more than $100 and less than 120 days old, agency gets 33%. If collectible goes to court, 50%

CCC: Prefers commercial only. Agency gets 25% for first $2,000; 20% for amounts up to $10,000; 15% for amounts up to $25,000; and 10% for $25,000 or more. If agency lawyer phones or sends letters, agency charges a 25% flat rate

CON: For consumer accounts of more than $100 that are less than six months old, agency gets 25%; six months to one year old, 30%. For commercial accounts, gets 20% and 25%, respectively

LC: For consumer and commercial accounts, agency gets 25% (but more than half must be commercial)

NRS: For consumer accounts, gets 33%. For commercial, 50%, if account is less than $500 or more than six months old; otherwise, 25% (20% if amount is more than $5,000)

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General Rules: Most agencies are small businesses, with an average of 12 employees operating from a single location. Collectors are paid modest salaries, plus commission.

FA: Each collector is trained to establish a rapport with debtor and sympathize with problems while setting up a payment plan

FMA: Computer auto-dials debtors who owe less than $300; accounts of more than $300 are assigned to a specific collector, who calls debtor once a week

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General Rules: It's up to the agency to judge if a delinquent account is uncollectible. Some agencies will drop an account sooner than others.

CBE: Accounts are considered uncollectible after seven years; otherwise, decision is left to collector assigned to the case

FA: Case limit is 45 days; agency checks to see if debtor has gone bankrupt or is merely a paper corporation

FMA: One-year limit; conducts aggressive "skip" chases through property and social-security numbers

NRS: 90-day limit

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Special Features

General Rules: Larger agencies offer expertise; smaller agencies offer dogged pursuit.

ABC: Intensive dunning schedules

FA: Automatically sends three "nice" precollection letters when client's receivable goes beyond 30 days; cost is $25 per account

NRS: Bonds a client to protect against lawsuits and agency malpractice

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No two agencies are alike, so shop carefully, even among agencies in the same region. Don't accept initial quotes; rates are often negotiable, especially if you're looking for more than a one-shot deal. Examine terms of special situations, such as fees charged if merchandise is returned in lieu of payment or if agency goes after debtor's assets

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= Apple, Bloom, & Carr, Atlanta

ATF = Allar-Tic Financial Services, Carlsbad, Calif.

CBE = Credit Bureau Enterprises, Waterloo, Iowa

CCC = Commercial Collection Consultants, Seattle

CON = Congress Collection, Detroit

FA = Frost-Arnett, Knoxville, Tenn.

FMA = FMA Enterprises, Houston

LC = Leib & Co., Cherry Hill, N.J.

NRS = Nationwide Recovery Service, Atlanta

-- Researched by Phaedra Hise