It's a booming business but even some "respectable" bailiffs are conning people, lying and ripping them off. BBC reporter Jim Wheble went undercover for nine months to expose how some debt collectors cheat the public.
Their job is to collect unpaid fines which are issued by magistrates' courts, local authorities and landlords. Sometimes they work directly for companies seeking to recover everything from council tax and parking fines to unpaid bills.
They are supposed to be Officers of the Court enforcing the law on behalf of the public. Instead I saw bailiffs cheat, lie and dissemble. I saw them illegally breaking and entering and I saw them fraudulently conning members of the public out of hundreds of pounds.
I'm not saying people shouldn't pay their debts and I'm certainly not criticising the companies who are owed money, but I saw bailiffs make people pay debts they didn't even owe and illegally inflate existing fines to more than they were supposed to be.
Undercover, I was employed as a bailiff by two companies - Drakes Group and CCS Enforcement Services Limited. To my new colleagues I was an ex-salesman who fancied a change of direction.
The first company I worked for was the Drakes Group, one of the largest bailiff companies in the country. They have just won the lion's share of contracts issued to bailiff companies to collect magistrates' courts fines.
They are seen as a market leader and possibly the most image conscious.
Another company I also worked for was CCS Enforcement Services Limited, a smaller business whose focus is on collecting unpaid parking fines. Their head office is in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, but I was based at a regional office in Croydon, south London.
They seemed a lot less glossy than Drakes, almost having a family feel about them. But like all the best families, they definitely had a few well kept secrets.
On my first day of training at Drakes the course tutor told us: "You are going to see things and hear things that are going to take you to the core of your humanity. The core of your idea of what society out there really is like."
He was right but it wasn't the behaviour of society that shocked me, it was the behaviour of the bailiffs. To be fair, most of the training stressed our responsibilities. I almost began to believe them. But then I started on the job, and one of my fellow bailiffs immediately told me in the bluntest language what he thought of the training.
"The shit they tell you at the school, it's a load of bollocks - trust me," one of the my fellow bailiffs told me as soon as I started. And so it was. My very first job with Drakes set the tone. I was sent with another more experienced bailiff to recover a £400 driving fine owed by a young man.
When we knocked on the door his mum explained he didn't live there. The law is quite clear, if he doesn't live at the address there is nothing we can do. I know that, I've been trained. But my bailiff colleague has different ideas.
"See the problem is at the moment madam, the court has issued a warrant against him at this address," he tells her. He goes on to explain to the terrified woman that we are "court enforcement officers". He adds: "Unless we can gain £400 this morning... we do have a warrant to remove goods."
I know this is simply not true - and so does my colleague. We have no right to remove this woman's possessions and no right to pressurise her into paying her son's debts. But that doesn't stop my colleague.
He begins to walk round the woman's home, deliberately listing her possessions as though preparing to take them. He stops by her washing machine and carefully notes down its make.
"I haven't done anything," pleads the woman, adding that she is a retired pensioner. But what my fellow bailiff is doing has nothing to do with the law either, as he freely admits to me while the woman is out of hearing.
Wheble went undercover
"We're not allowed to take washing machines any more either but I list them anyway cos it pisses people off," he says. "The washing machine is the main thing in their household, especially a lady's household. Their washing machine is like the business."
It works. The mother panics and phones her daughter. My colleague takes the phone. "Right what I will do," he says. "I will do your mum a favour. We will leave this morning, but if it's not paid by... this afternoon we will come back with a locksmith if necessary to remove the property."
Again that is completely untrue, he can do no such thing. But it works. The fine gets paid.
I had expected to find rogue bailiffs. I had been told by one whistleblower - a bailiff for 20 years - that the business was riddled with illegal practices. What I found was more pervasive, more systematic, than I could ever have imagined.
Fear is the key weapon in the bailiff's armoury. But that doesn't mean that all bailiffs are shaven-headed hard men. At CCS Enforcement Services Limited I was sent out to work with another bailiff who looks like a gentleman. He wears a tweed jacket and has a polite deferential manner. I am little prepared for what happens next.
We've been sent to visit the home of debtor's former wife. We know he's probably not living there, but it's decided we should pay her and her children a visit anyway. Instead of making for her front door, this "gentleman bailiff" decides on another approach. As I look on in astonishment he takes a ladder from the back of the van.
"I've done this many times actually," he says as he climbs up to a first floor window where he comes face to face with the debtor's former wife. I can see no conceivable justification for terrifying this entirely innocent woman, alone at home with her two small children.
The poor woman screams hysterically at what she believes is an intruder. Absurdly, what he's doing isn't illegal - an ancient bailiff law means he can actually do this. It achieves absolutely nothing apart from causing unnecessary fear and alarm.
He tells me about another little trick he had up his sleeve - bumping up charges. It's completely illegal but, as I discovered, it happens all the time.
Rising debt means more work for bailiffs
Although the original debt a bailiff may be trying to recover might only be £100 the bailiff can significantly increase the money the debtor has to pay by adding extra fees for every visit he has to make. Only one visit can take the bill to £300. Add three visits and the bill can go up to £700.
He explained to me that these "extra visits" may not be quite what they appear. What he does is collect thousands of pounds in extra fees by charging debtors for visits he never made. They're called "phantom visits" in the trade. I watched him do it.
We call on a man whose parking fine has gone up to £300. The man is anxious not to be clamped and offered to pay right away. But my colleague says the fine is now £700 when our current visit is added on.
That was much more than the amount the man really owed, but I couldn't say anything. I was undercover and I just had to remain in frustrated silence. The bailiff offers to take the cost of today's visit off and drops £100 from the bill. The man paid up the £600 remaining.
This was not a lone occurrence, the practice appears to me to be endemic in the industry. Many of the bailiffs at Drakes were no exception.
While I was working for them I got a call from head office. They'd received a cheque from a debtor but I still had to go round and enforce a warrant. I couldn't understand this, so I brought it up at the morning meeting.
"Technically, we can't remove any goods or remove his car because he's paid the fine," I say. But one of the more experienced bailiffs at Drakes didn't seem worried about that.
"Has the office cashed the cheque yet?" he asks. I tell him that they hadn't. "Oh you can enforce the warrant then," he said.
Parking tickets can be costly if unpaid
That is precisely what we did. The couple who owned the car had sent in a cheque to cover the £175 fine, but we went round and demanded £381.75. And the couple - with two burly bailiffs standing at their door - paid up.
It wasn't only a few rogue bailiffs who did this. My manager at Drakes, appeared to make it clear that this was to be general practice. "Every trip you've got at the moment, you just have to add the second and third visits straight away, so that's your extra hundred pounds added on already," he says.
There is little, I discovered, that can stand in the way of a determined bailiff - certainly not the law. Another bailiff there put it succinctly: "You are a legal thief," he says.
And like thieves, many bailiffs quickly learn a basic skill - breaking and entering. After all, checking out the goods - even if they are not the debtors - is a lot easier when no-one is in.
The best I met was an ex-cop, now working for Drakes. He showed me how to break into a house in a few seconds, using a special gadget that left not a trace.
Another bailiff explained to me, they have no real fear of being caught breaking the law. After all it is usually simply the bailiff's word against the debtors. "I'm a court officer," he says. "Why shouldn't they believe me."
The fact is that most people don't complain. Most people have no idea what a bailiff can and can't do. All too often it is that ignorance which the ruthless bailiff will exploit.
But the end of the road came for me when I saw real damage being done. At Drakes, I was shadowing a bailiff known for going to any lengths to get paid. We were pursuing a fine that had been issued by the courts for an unpaid TV licence.
Councils use bailiffs
The debtor wasn't in and nobody else at the house spoke English apart from the debtor's kids. The bailiff told the young girls that when people don't pay fines they can go to prison, and that was what could happen to their mother. The crying girls got the message. This was more than I could take.
In a statement Drakes Group told us it had taken the lead in improving enforcement standards across the industry and did not condone, or knowingly allow, any of the alleged offences. It pledged to investigate any allegation of impropriety or poor practice and take appropriate action as necessary.
CCS Enforcement Services Limited said it had launched a full internal investigation and would take disciplinary action against any person found to have acted inappropriately. It also announced an independent review of CCS Enforcement Services Limited policies and procedures, to ensure that all employees operate at the very highest ethical and professional standards.
Whistleblower: Bailiffs was broadcast on Tuesday 26 September.