MOSCOW -- Sergei has watched in horror as Russian television has been flooded with harrowing stories about vicious debt collectors terrorizing households with threats and violence in order to recover overdue loans. He worries his family could be next.
In December, the 29-year-old from the southwestern city of Voronezh became one of 11.5 million Russians to fall behind on loan payments, after he was diagnosed with a brain disease that stopped him from earning a paycheck and making payments on two loans. His total debt: $330.
Despite the relatively small sum, Sergei says that he and his friends and acquaintances have been hounded for the past month, received threatening phone calls day and night from thuggish-sounding debt collectors demanding that the money be repaid.
"I hope this all ends peacefully, but I have my doubts that it will," says Sergei, who does not want his last name published for fear it could worsen his predicament.
Dubbed "black bailiffs" and "vultures of the crisis," overzealous debt collectors have shot to prominence in Russia as its economy founders -- an unsavory byproduct of a prolonged recession fueled by the collapse of world oil prices and compounded by Western sanctions over Moscow's interference in Ukraine.
Debt collectors are unloved around the world, but some of the recent cases in Russia chill the blood. They have led to calls for a crackdown on collectors, along with concerns that new legislation would have little effect in a country where justice is often compromised by cash.
On January 27, the authorities said, a collector chasing down a 4,000-ruble ($53) debt threw a firebomb through a debtor's apartment window in the city of Ulyanovsk. It exploded near a sleeping 2-year-old boy, badly burning his face and 40 percent of his body.
A few days earlier, aggressive debt collectors were blamed when a Siberian logger who owed 3 million rubles ($40,000) killed his pregnant wife and their two children before turning the gun on himself.
And in December in the southern Rostov region, police with sniffer dogs and bomb-disposal technicians urgently evacuated a kindergarten after a teacher who owed money was told the premises would be blown up unless she paid.
Debt-retrieval agencies worldwide buy consumer credit owed to banks at knockdown rates and then chase down the debtors. But at the violent, loosely regulated end of Russia's debt-collection industry, the crossover with organized crime is palpable.
In the spotlight are "microfinancing organizations," which sounds like a euphemism for loan sharks and sometimes is. Small lenders that sometimes pay little regard to banking regulations, they hand out short-term loans to poorer clients at high rates -- and often have in-house debt collectors.
The firebombing in Ulyanovsk caused national uproar and has been blamed on one such organization, RosDengi, where the child's grandfather had taken out a 4,000-ruble loan for medicine that ballooned to 40,000 rubles ($530) as interest mounted. The debt collector arrested over the attack was reportedly a former police officer who had been fired after a theft conviction.
Disabled And Desperate
Sergei turned to a microfinancing organization in June 2015.
Suffering from scary, unexplained blackouts, he began costly medical treatment in March and took out loans for $200 and $130 so that he, his wife, and their year-old child could subsist until he was able to work again.
But in July he was diagnosed with a brain disease and pronounced "disabled" by doctors, ruling him out of work. He plowed his paltry monthly disability allowance of 8,500 rubles ($112) into loan repayments, but by December he couldn't keep up.
Sergei told the lender he was behind and asked for a reprieve, but the debt has continued to grow. He says he owes triple what he borrowed. He now works from home in logistics, having lied to his boss about his illness.
"I'm not scared of threats and intimidation," he says of debt collectors, but suggests that's because he has even bigger things to worry about. "I have a serious illness, I have everything to fear, and fearing people like this is stupid."
Delinquent consumer debt is not about to bring down Russia's economy, but the number of debtors is growing fast -- and that has given politicians grist for proposals to ban debt collectors outright ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
Unpaid consumer debt soared by 48 percent in 2015 and hit 1.15 trillion rubles ($15 billion), according to the Moscow-based United Credit Bureau, which tracks borrowing and compiles credit histories.
The United Credit Bureau tells RFE/RL the number of Russians late on consumer-credit payments rose from 8.5 million to 11.5 million in 2015. As of the end of the year, 7.3 million had not serviced their loans for longer than 90 days -- a technical cutoff date, meaning many are unlikely to pay at all.
In a country of 142 million people, there are 42.5 million Russians with loans and credit-card debt.
"Obviously, the bad debts have got worse this year with the crisis, but within fairly normal parameters," says Tom Adshead, a partner at Macro-Advisory, a Moscow-based financial consulting firm.
The parliamentary vote will be the biggest test of the electorate's mood since 2014, when the collapse of world oil prices hit the Russian economy hard and Western sanctions -- punishment for seizing Crimea and stoking a bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine -- increased its isolation.
President Vladimir Putin's poll ratings have suffered only limited damage so far. But the Kremlin has shown concern about the sentiment of his support base now that the unwritten pact of his first two terms -- I provide economic growth, you stay away from street protests -- is unraveling.
There has been no shortage of legislative proposals to rein in debt collectors in recent weeks.
In the wake of the firebombing in Ulyanovsk, the speaker of the upper parliament house, Valentina Matviyenko, on January 28 called for the activity of collection agencies to be halted entirely, pending new legislation that would regulate the industry.
On January 19, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party submitted a draft bill in the lower house, the State Duma, that would effectively outlaw collection agencies, as it proposes to prohibit the recouping of debts by any other entity than the original creditor -- the bank itself.
St. Petersburg legislators also jumped on the bandwagon, submitting proposals to the Duma that would make it illegal for collection agencies to pursue debts outside a courtroom.
Vitaly Milonov, a prominent antigay lawmaker in St. Petersburg, said on January 16 that he would battle against debt collectors with the same vigor he showed in promoting a law that banned the spread among children of the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."
"We recognize collectors as a new kind of homosexual," Milonov said.
The National Association for Professional Debt Collector Agencies, which says it represents collection agencies that make up 90 percent of the market, welcomes more regulation in the sector. It says that the problem lies largely with smaller agencies, and particularly "microfinance" organizations.
Association head Boris Voronin says nobody knows how many collection agencies there are in Russia.
Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika suggested in December that law enforcement lacks the tools to rein in the abusive ones, saying that while there had been 21,000 complaints about collection agencies since 2013 only a few have led to criminal cases. Collection agencies are "still not regulated by the federal law and are not licensed," Interfax quoted him as saying.
But Voronin dismissed the lawmakers' proposals as "preelection populism" linked to the September vote. "Naturally, over 40 million borrowers are a serious electorate and one that deputies would like to obtain," Voronin said. "Of this 40 million, over 10 million are debtors."
More likely to pass is a bill being drafted by the Economic Development Ministry, which could reach the Duma in March.
Meanwhile, the state has taken to prime-time television to warn Russians against predatory lenders.
Federal Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin, who unpacks a crime a week in a show on state-run TV, warned Russians about the perils of borrowing in a November episode called Deadly Debts. It featured the story of a man Markin said was murdered by a collector after he was fired from his job and got stuck in a spiral of debt.
Markin seemed to suggest that in such cases, some of the blame lies with the victim. "The saying goes that if you take what isn't yours for a time, then you will give up what is yours forever," Markin said. "You don't want to give back -- and that is when you are paid a visit by debt collectors who more and more often use criminal methods to squeeze out payments."
When Russia went capitalist after the 1991 Soviet collapse, it took a while for consumer lending to catch on.
As Russia recovered from the global economic crisis, borrowing more than doubled from 101 billion rubles in December 2008 to 210 billion rubles in December 2012, according to the central bank. Last year, the monthly figure averaged about 225 billion rubles.
In boom times before the 2008-09 crisis and the current slide, the country has been festooned with enticing advertisements for loans. One showed a wheelbarrow full of cash and the words "take as much as you want," and another featured American action-movie star Bruce Willis telling Russians, "When I need money, I just take it."
Adshead, of Macro-Advisory, is skeptical that more legislation will make a difference to thuggish debt-collector practices. "The problem is the standard problem with everything in Russia, which is that the courts don't work properly. There is room for criminal debt-collection agencies. And I would imagine that they have their various 'kryshas' allowing them to do nasty things," he says, using the Russian word for "roof" -- criminal slang for protection.
With legal protections weak, several support groups for victims of debt collectors have formed on social networks such as VKontakte. One of them, called Stop Collector!, is run by Aleksandr Naryshkin, a 31-year-old computer programmer in St. Petersburg who has received threats from collectors since 2013 -- including one in which he was told he would be enslaved as a prostitute.
Naryshkin said he was tricked into taking out a 350,000-ruble loan and then saddled with debt for the entire sum, plus interest. He has refused to pay, saying he is the victim of swindlers.
On his group, where thousands have turned for advice, he recommends debtors go to court and not cave in to threats by telephone, which he says seldom materialize.
Mikhail Karpenko, a lawyer in the industrial Urals, has helped Naryshkin's group by giving free legal advice to debtors. "In our region at least, Chelyabinsk Oblast, the population is heavily in debt. People just fall into a black hole of debt, and can't get out," Karpenko says. "In my opinion, we need to remove the entire institution of collectors."
But Sergei, in Voronezh, has little hope that the situation will improve. "Laws to help oligarchs are passed in the space of a week, while laws for people take years to pass," he says. "These draft bills are probably just PR."