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El Cobrador Del Frac: Costumed Debt Collectors in Spain

Salient Features:

✯ Professional stalking

✯ Exemplary dress code

✯ Catholic guilt

“It’s just one tool of many. But yes, we do sometimes use it.” Juan Carlos Granda is the commercial director of the largest debt collection company in Spain. While debt collection is never an effortless pursuit, in Spain it’s a near futility, given that the Spanish legal system is as tangled as an eight-year-old’s shoelaces. Hunting down debtors is tricky, forcing them pay up a practical impossibility—there is even a Spanish word, moroso, which means slow but also “a doubtful debtor.”

But Juan Carlos works for El Cobrador del Frac, a company invented twenty years ago on a premise so fiendishly ingenious that it would leap straight to the top of the list at G. K. Chesterton’s “Club of Queer Trades.” “It is an eccentric and Bohemian Club,” Chesterton wrote in the story of the same name, “of which the absolute condition of membership lies in this, that the candidate must have invented the method by which he earns his living.” More than that, the Cobrador del Frac’s creators—a group of four Madrid lawyers who prefer to remain anonymous—have invented an entire surreal industry.

It works like this. El Cobrador del Frac literally means The Dress-Coat Collector. Rather than menace their targets into paying outstanding debts, the Dress-coat Collector would be sent to blatantly stalk the ap­pointed person. They’d walk behind him on the street, sit at the next table at the restaurant, wait outside their house and sit in front of his workplace. Wherever the debtor would go, there would be the Collector, deliberately walking a few paces behind. And what a shadow he would cast: a tall man in an old-fashioned frock coat, with a top hat, a briefcase and theatrically somber ex­pression—Uriah Heep himself, leapt from the page. It’s the worst undercover surveillance in history, and utter genius.

And of course, as the stalking Heeps ap­peared more and more regularly in cafes and offices, bystanders began to catch on. They’d point and laugh at the somber man in the old-fashioned frock coat. The bystanders’ gazes would then shift ahead to locate the red-faced debtor, desperate to hide from the unwanted attention. Heep need say nothing—he let public shame and Catholic guilt do his work. Almost immediately after the company began, its repayment success rate was the best anyone could remember.

The Cobrador del Frac is now the biggest agency in the country, with more than three hundred employees in offices throughout Spain and in Portugal, working for a range of clients from all over the world. Their black cars carry the distinctive logo of a tall, thin, top-hatted man, and, although these days they don’t often resort to the uniform, the frock coats hang menacingly in the wardrobes of their collectors. “We’ve occasionally been known to bring it back,” admits Juan Carlos. “Though it isn’t a big part of what we do anymore.”

Not for them, perhaps. But as their fame spread, so were the costume shops of Spain emptied by keen wan­nabes, hungry for a cut of the profits. Currently spotted in various parts of Spain: the Monastery of Credit, the Scotsman of Debt, the Matador Collector and the Pink Panther of Repayment, all on their daily prowls behind those with money as yet unpaid.

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