TOUGH financial times have contributed to an 80 per cent caseload explosion for debt collectors, who predict the sea of debtors will rise further. Hong Kong managers of international collection firm Total Credit Management Services said the surge was 'drastic', with the bulk of the debt owed by people unable to pay everyday bills. Managing director Benedict Wong Chi-kwong said other firms had crossed the legal line in pursuing debts, but that his company worked within the law. 'Compared with the first half year of 1997, this year we have received 80 per cent more cases. It's a drastic increase,' Mr Wong said. 'It doesn't mean we make lots more money, it just means we have a much bigger caseload. 'We will have to wait, but it's my view things will continue to be bad in the second half of the year,' he said. Mr Wong said there were unscrupulous companies 'mixed up' with professional collectors, but his team of six men and two women - predominantly ex-police officers - stuck firmly to the law. They regularly collected for top banks and credit card companies, tape-recording all phone calls to debtors in line with Hong Kong Monetary Authority guidelines. It is part of the Total Credit Management group, which collects debts in 45 countries. The group reported that commercial debt was rising and an increasing number of people were fleeing the SAR to avoid repayment. 'If you owe $10 million or $20 million and you have $5 million, you have options. Many people skip town and start again,' Mr Wong said. 'Fortunately, we have an international network of companies and we pursue people who go overseas.' Mr Wong disagreed with banking chiefs over incentive bonuses paid to debt collectors for cases resolved. Critics believe the bonuses encourage over-zealous pursuit. His staff receive a basic starting salary of $8,500, but bonuses can take their pay to as much as $40,000 a month. 'It's a balance. So long as the basic is enough to live on, I believe it is necessary to offer incentives. Problems come when the basic is too low,' Mr Wong said. His collectors passed strict integrity vetting, including a detailed look at why the prospective employees left the police force. He said Hong Kong should follow the United States, Australia and Britain in introducing a debt collectors' association to police the industry and develop a code of ethics.