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Debt Collector or Scammer:

How to Tell the Difference?

Red flags that an alleged debt collection caller is actually a scammer trying to get your money.

There is a new scheme that is flourishing around the country – scammers who pose as debt collectors and collection agencies and try to get consumers to pay them. These types of scam artists often use abusive and harassing tactics in order to frighten you into providing bank and other personal information, while you falsely believe that you are paying real debts.

Many people are unable to tell the difference between a legitimate collection agency and a scammer. But there are some red flags to watch for that indicate that the collection call you receive is probably not from a legitimate collection agency. Pay attention to these if you get a call from an alleged debt collector so you can avoid becoming the next victim.

How the Fake Debt Collection Scam Works

The scam is straightforward. Scammers will call consumers to collect debts, posing as real collection agencies. Often, the scammers will have already accessed your personal information through identity theft or by obtaining your credit report. By doing this, they will often appear to be “collecting” debts that you actually owe, making the scam seem very believable.

For example, the scammer may inform you that she is collecting an American Express debt. You may actually owe money to American Express, and thus may believe the caller works for American Express. The scam is that the caller actually has no relationship at all to American Express, and whatever money you fork over, isn't going to American Express. It goes into the scammer’s pocket, as well as any other funds the scammer can access with the financial information you provide.

How to Tell If you’re Being Scammed

Here are some tips to help you determine whether there is a real collection agency on the phone, or a scammer.
• The caller is abnormally harassing and abusive. Although legitimate collection agencies have been known to be abusive, scammers will often use over-the-top, aggressive, blatant threats. They will tell you that you are being served with a lawsuit immediately. Or they may say that they have contacted the police, or that you may be arrested. These are, of course, false threats.
• The caller demands payment “today.” A scammer will often insist on payment "today." There may be a penalty connected to nonpayment, such as the threat of a lawsuit by the end of the day, or some other threat which can only be avoided by paying immediately. Of course, collection agencies also want to be paid immediately. But rarely will they threaten immediate punishment or similar action if a payment is not made by the end of the day.
• The caller doesn’t accept various forms of payment. Most collection agencies will accept payment through some combination of mail, phone, website, or debit card. They want your money no matter how you get it to them. A scammer will usually insist on payment in a single way, for example, only allowing you to pay by credit card over the phone and refusing payment by any other method.
• The caller refuses to give a physical address or name. If the collector can't give you an actual mailing address, or even the full name of the company on whose behalf he or she is calling, that's a sure sign of a scam. Any legitimate collection agency will readily give you this information.
• The caller refers you back to the original creditor for information. A real collection agency knows something about your debt, or else will contact the original creditor themselves for information it doesn’t have. A real collection agency will never tell you to contact the original creditor, for any reason. If it cannot provide you with basic information about the debt, such as the date of default, amount of principle vs. interest, account number, whose name the debt is in, or other information, or it refers you to the original creditor for such information, it's likely a scammer.
• Someone answers the phone immediately when you call. Real collection agencies have complex phone systems, or receptionists, which route your call to a collection agent. If you call and the collector answers the phone directly, they’re likely using a cell phone, a telltale sign of a scammer.
• You keep dealing with the same person. Legitimate agencies have multiple collection agents, and it doesn't matter which one you deal with. If you keep talking to "Frank Jones" every time you call, it's a sign that you may be speaking to a scammer.

What to Do If You Think You’re Being Scammed

The best thing you can do is not to pay a nickel or give away any of your personal information until you do some further research to find out if the caller is legitimate or not. Here’s how.

• Ask the caller for his name, company, street address, and telephone number. Tell the caller that you refuse to discuss any debt until you get a written "validation notice." The notice must include the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor you owe, and your rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
If a caller refuses to give you all of this information, do not pay! Paying a fake debt collector will not always make them go away. They may make up another debt to try to get more money from you.
• Stop speaking with the caller. If you have the caller's address, send a letter demanding that the caller stop contacting you, and keep a copy for your files. By law, real debt collectors must stop calling you if you ask them to in writing.
• Do not give the caller personal financial or other sensitive information. Never give out or confirm personal financial or other sensitive information like your bank account, credit card, or Social Security number unless you know whom you're dealing with. Scam artists, like fake debt collectors, can use your information to commit identity theft – charging your existing credit cards, opening new credit card, checking, or savings accounts, writing fraudulent checks, or taking out loans in your name.
• Call the original creditor. The original creditor should be able to tell you which company it has hired to collect your debt, or which company has purchased it.
• Report the call. Contact the FTC and your state Attorney General's office with information about suspicious callers. Many states have their own debt collection laws in addition to the federal FDCPA. Your Attorney General's office can help you determine your rights under your state's law.
• Do a Google search of the caller’s phone number. If it’s a scammer, your search will likely reveal others with similar problems. There are websites devoted to discussions about collectors. If you input the number the collector is calling from or the number where she requested you call, you may find others who have been threatened in the exact same ways that you have.

What If the Caller Is a Scammer?

If you're convinced that the caller is in fact not a legitimate collection agency, the best thing you can do is ignore the calls. Scammers want quick turnaround and easy prey. If you won't respond, they will move on to someone who will. Once scammers believe they you are frightened or convinced that you owe the debt to them, and once they know you will answer the phone when they call, they see you as a target, and won’t let up.

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