The phone rings — usually during a meal — and someone on the line demands that you pay a debt that you owe. The call could concern a legitimate debt, but sometimes the call is not from a collector at all. Rather it is a scam artist pretending to be a debt collector.
Recently there has been an increasing incidence of scammers masquerading as collectors and preying on unsuspecting victims.
First, don’t avoid real debt collectors. If you owe the debt, work with the collector to find a solution that works for both of you. If you avoid the situation, they will simply continue to call and may resort to more aggressive collecting tactics.
By law, collectors must verify your identity before talking to you. They are not allowed to talk about your debt with unauthorized people. They will ask you to verify your name, address, month and year of birth or the last four digits of your Social Security number. Once they have verified your identity, they will tell you the purpose of the call and will give you the name of their company, address, phone number and website. This is your opportunity to verify that they are a legitimate bill collector.
Those crooks who are pretending to be collectors may ask you for your whole Social Security number and won’t offer any other alternative to verify your identity. In fact, this should be one rule you should always follow — never give your Social Security number to anyone unless you know who you are talking to and completely trust their intentions.
Scammers won’t give you any information about themselves, the company they represent or the debt. They may also say they are from a fake agency that is close enough to an actual agency’s name to sound real. Ask for written information on the debt. Scammers may yell at you or threaten you with jail or violence, but when you ask for written information, they are likely to move on to the next person on their list.
Don’t dismiss the debt collector as a scammer simply if you don’t recognize the name of the company. Overdue payments are often sold to consolidators who attempt to collect on the debts, so the name of the company may not be familiar to you. Ask the person on the phone who they are representing and for their verifying information. If you have any doubts at all, ask for written information to be mailed to you and refuse to talk about the debt until you have reviewed the information.
If you receive a collection letter, read it carefully. Unless you have reason to think it is suspect, you should respond in some manner. Even if you can’t pay, call the company and discuss the debt. Don’t be afraid to negotiate if you owe the debt and can pay something. If you can’t pay the debt, try to set up a payment plan or agreement that you are comfortable with.
If it is a legitimate debt collector and you aren’t comfortable with the way you have been treated, you do have the right to submit a complaint concerning a collector to the company’s compliance complaint. If you continue to have trouble, complaints can be sent to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the state attorney general.
If you suspect a scammer, report the situation and as much information as you can glean to the Alaska State Troopers or the city police. Depending on the situation, there may not be enough evidence or damages to prosecute. However, it is always a good idea to share your experiences so others won’t get caught in the same scams.
Owing a debt is never an easy situation. However, don’t compound that challenge by becoming the victim of a scam artist pretending to be a debt collector.
Roxie Rodgers Dinstel is associate director of the Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Questions or column requests can be e-mailed to her at email@example.com or by calling (907)474-7201.