Total U.S. household debt in Q4 2018 was at $13.54 trillion, with 4.7% of debt in some stage of delinquency, reports the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Many people feel trapped and are worried about how to pay off debt. If you’re part of the population drowning in debt, the threat of debt collection can amplify your already stressful financial situation.
What’s even more troubling is that not all debt collection attempts are legitimate. Being aware of the warning signs of debt collector scams can help you avoid becoming a victim. Here’s what you should know.
How to spot debt collection scams
Creditors hire independent debt collection agencies to collect outstanding debt on its behalf. Some of these attempts are from real debt collection agencies reaching out about a debt it believes is owed, but some of them aren’t.
Scammers make false claims regarding a real or fake debt in order to coerce you into sending them money. Even if you have a lot of debt, this is an unscrupulous practice. Here are the top red flags of a debt collection scam.
1. You get calls at unreasonable times
If you wake up to a call at 11 p.m. or any other improper time from a supposed debt collection agency, this is a red flag. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) limits debt collectors’ communication to 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. of your local time.
This particular rule also applies to unreasonable places as well, regardless of the time — for example, if the caller continues to call you at work even though you’ve told them to stop calling as your employer doesn’t allow you to take personal calls. This situation is then considered an unreasonable place of contact.
2. The collection isn’t on your credit report
A legitimate debt might not be on your credit report, but for good reason. If it has passed the statute of limitations for creditors to sue regarding the debt, it’s considered “time-barred.” However, real debt collectors — and scammers — can still contact you to try to collect on this debt.
“Fake debt collectors call people and try to scam them into paying for an expired or not even existent debt,” says Leslie Tayne, financial debt resolution attorney and author of Life & Debt.
If you recognize the account in question, but believe it’s time-barred and are unsure if the debt collector is legitimate, you are within your rights to ask them two questions:
- Is the debt is time-barred?
- When does their records state the last payment was made?
By law, debt collectors are required to tell you the truth about details regarding the debt and should have this information on hand.
3. They demand payment on the spot
A giveaway that you might be speaking to a scam artist is if they demand payment on the spot without ever providing additional information about the debt. You want to get out of debt, but it's important to do it safely.
4. They require payment through wire transfer
Some red flags you may want to watch out for is if they ask for a large sum of money up front and refuse to send you any information on their services unless you provide personal or financial information.
Under the FDCPA, debt collectors are required to provide you with a debt validation letter within five days of making first contact. Once you receive the letter, you legally have the right to dispute the debt within 30 days.
5. They’re missing basic information about the debt
The law protects consumers from predatory and excessive debt collection tactics by requiring debt collectors to be honest and transparent about the collection.
“A legitimate debt collector cannot withhold information from you,” says Tayne. “They are legally obligated to disclose the creditor seeking collections, as well as the amount owed.”
If the caller is asking you to fill in the blanks regarding basic information about a debt, like the creditor’s name, amount owed, or when your last payment was made, you’re likely dealing with a debt collector scam.
6. They won’t reveal the agency’s contact information
Don’t engage with — and absolutely don’t provide payment — to an unknown caller.
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), “Many states require debt collectors to be licensed.” The caller should be willing to disclose their basic contact information, like their full name, agency name, telephone number, and address as well as their license number.
The FDCPA also prohibits debt collectors from misleading you into thinking they’re from a government entity, like the IRS, or are an attorney as an attempt to deceive you into paying the alleged debt.
7. They threaten to have you arrested
Another strategy scammers use to intimidate you into giving them money is by claiming you’ll be arrested or imprisoned if you don’t pay the debt. This falls under “False and Misleading Representations,” according to federal law. They also can’t threaten to seize your property or garnish your wages as a means to collect on the debt.
“[Scammers] may also threaten to tell your family, friends or employers about your debts,” says Tayne. “Debt collectors are also not usually legally allowed to inform anyone else of your debts.”
What to do if you suspect you’re talking to a scammer
There’s a lot of information and rules outlined in the FDCPA, which can be challenging to remember when you feel pressured during an unexpected debt collection call. Here are a few simple do’s and don’ts if you think you have a scammer on the other line.
Write everything down. All details from the call can help you investigate whether the debt collection is legitimate, including names, dates, call times, and any other details about the debt and caller.
Have the caller identify themselves. Remember debt collectors are required to divulge who they are and the agency they represent. When asked for other information, like a phone number and address, they should be able to provide it.
“If you’re unsure if the collector is legit, hang up and call the company directly,” says Tayne. “If the callback number is not for the company they mentioned, or it is a malfunctioning number, it was probably a scam.”
Ask for information on the debt. If they refuse to disclose details about the debt, ask them for a debt validation letter.
Check your credit report. Immediately after a suspicious call, see if your credit report shows any active debt in collection. You can get a free credit report every 12 months from each credit bureau by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com or calling (877) 322-8228.
Confirm the debt is actually yours. Although the call might be a legitimate attempt to collect on a debt, errors sometimes come up — for example, if you and a family member have the same name. Do your due diligence to ensure the debt is or isn’t yours.
Check for online scams. Use any identifying information the caller provided, like a phone number, to see if there have been reports of fraud associated with the number or collection agency.
Contact the original creditor. You can confirm who your original creditor assigned to collect the debt — if one was chosen at all.
Ask them to stop contacting you. Legitimate debt collectors know that once you’ve requested a debt validation letter, they’re legally required to pause collection efforts. Only after they’ve given you debt verification or a court-issue copy of the judgment can they continue collecting the debt.
“Generally, the most effective method for getting a debt collector to stop contacting you is to submit a request in writing,” says Tayne. According to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, after a collector receives your formal letter, they’re only allowed to contact you for two reasons: 1) to acknowledge that they’ll no longer contact you, or 2) to inform you of subsequent actions the collection agency plans on taking.
What NOT to do
If you suspect you're on the line with a scammer, avoid doing the following:
Don’t give out your personal information. The original creditor should’ve given the debt collector your basic information and details about the owed debt. There’s no reason to reveal or confirm your bank account, Social Security number, or credit card information with an alleged debt collector.
Don’t agree the debt is yours or set up payments. Regardless of whether the call is about a legitimate or questionable debt, don’t confirm that you owe it and don’t agree to make payments toward the collection.
Don’t visit a website given by the caller. Some scammers might suggest visiting their website, but be on guard. “Make sure not to disclose your information on an unsecured site, says Tayne. “The URL should start with ‘https’ in the address bar if it’s a secure site.”
Don’t keep answering debt collection calls. If you’ve requested that the caller stop calling you and asked for a debt validation letter, don’t feel obligated to entertain their calls or communication until you verify they and the debt are legitimate. Fraudulent collectors want to get your money and sensitive information quickly, and they likely won’t pursue you for long unless you invite it by responding to their attempts.
Educating yourself on the laws around debt collection practices is the best defense against debt collection scams.
Know your rights
It’s understandable to feel fear, panic, and pressure to take immediate action when you’re in the midst of a debt collection attempt, especially one that shows warnings of being a scam.
If you’re a victim of a debt collector scam, or if a debt collector is in violation of the FDCPA, there are a few rights you can enact.
Reach out to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
You can submit a complaint to the CFPB about your experience with the suspected scam. The Bureau will work with you and the financial company directly to help you understand the situation or fix errors, such as in the case of mistaken identity regarding a debt in collection. According to the CFPB website, businesses usually respond to inquiries within 15 days.
Contact your state attorney general
In addition to federal regulations, states have their own debt collection laws. To better understand what your protections are in your state, find and contact your representative.
File a complaint through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Although the FTC can’t resolve your complaint, it can offer resources and options for dealing with a suspected debt collection scam. Reporting the incident through the FTC Complaint Assistant portal helps the agency record and track patterns of consumer fraud and abuse.
Exercise your right to sue the collector
You also have the right to sue the debt collector or debt agency if you feel they’ve violated your FDCPA protections.
“If there has been a violation, you’re entitled to sue a collector in a state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated,” says Tayne.
When enacting this right, consider speaking to an attorney who specializes in consumer debt and also knows your state’s consumer laws, since they vary depending on where you live.