How to know if a debt collector is a scam

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If you’ve ever answered a call from an unknown number, you may be familiar with the scenario of a company claiming that you owe money for something you’ve never heard of.

While debt collectors are very real, there are scammers who pose as them to get money out of you. How can you tell the difference between the real ones and the frauds? Here are a few ways to tell if a debt collector is real.

How to tell if a debt collector is legit

If you’re on the phone with a debt collector or you’ve received a piece of mail, you might be a little uneasy about owing money to something you aren’t sure about. Here are some ways to find out if a debt collector is legitimate.

1. You received a letter in the mail

By the time debt hits a debt collector, you might not recognize the company that reaches out to you. But a letter in the mail is one way legitimate debt collectors will reach out to you in an attempt to collect a debt.

Some will send a letter first, then call, but some will call and then send a letter. Either way, keep a lookout in your mailbox.

2. The agency is licensed in your state

Legitimate debt collecting agencies will share their company name, phone number, address and any other corresponding information to prove they are who they say they are. If a company calls you demanding money but won’t release any information about itself, that’s a red flag. If you haven’t received a confirmation or validation letter yet, request one on the phone and then stop discussing the matter over the phone until you get it.

You can verify that the agency is legitimate by checking with your state’s attorney general or consumer affairs department.

3. The collector can verify your personal details

If the company on the phone can’t provide you with your own personal information, like your full name and address, that’s concerning. Real debt collectors have those details and should provide them to you in full when asked. There’s a chance the company contacting you is real, but it might have the wrong person.

4. You can request information about the debt

If the debt collector is trying to reach someone to pay a debt and you’re sure the debt isn’t yours, find out where the original debt came from. Find out as much as you can about where the debt originated from to see if it’s actually yours. There’s a chance it’s a real debt with a real company but it just doesn’t belong to you. However, if the company won’t share those details, you should be concerned.

5. There’s more than one method of payment

Debt collectors will try to collect a debt any way they can, which means giving you options to repay the money via check, credit card or debit card.

If the company says that you can only pay via a wire transfer, that’s a sign of a scammer. Also avoid companies that let you pay with a prepaid debit card. Both methods are untraceable.

6. A company works with you, not against you

If a company yells at you, berates you or threatens you with wage garnishment, jail time or harm to you or your family, the company is breaking the law, whether it is real or not. Legitimate companies know the laws and could risk losing its business if it breaks them.

While you could face wage garnishment depending on where you live, legitimate debt collectors will work with you to pay your debt back in full — not threaten you.

Ways to protect yourself from debt collection scams

If you’re worried about potential scammers, there are ways you can protect yourself, your bank account and your personal information.

  • Request contact information. If a debt collector calls you, ask for a callback number in case you get disconnected. The company should be willing to provide you with details if it is legitimate. If the debt collector provides you with details, call back to see who answers the phone. If the company is the same, that’s a good sign. If someone answers from a company you’re not familiar with or it’s not a functioning number, that’s a red flag.
  • Contact your creditor. Go back to the source of the debt by contacting the original creditor you dealt with. If they can confirm who is in charge of the debt now, you’ll be able to see if the company contacting you is the same one. Remember to request a confirmation or validation notice of the debt in question.
  • Check your credit report. See what’s on your credit reports from the three major bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — to see if the debt in question is on your report. You can see all of them for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. That said, while the majority of debts are reported, not all debt collectors report information to the credit reporting agencies. That means the debt could still be valid and still be yours, but might not be on your credit report.

How to report fake debt collectors

If you think you’ve been scammed or there’s been an attempt to scam you, there are ways you can fight back.

  1. Keep notes. Write down every phone call, received letter and any other correspondence you get from the company, as well as what was said. The more information you have, the better your complaint will be if you decide to submit one.
  2. Contact your state’s attorney general. Your AG’s office is on the lookout for scammers in your state and wants to put an end to fraud like fake debt collectors.
  3. Submit a complaint. Report the fake company to the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Featured image by Drazen Zigic of Shutterstock.

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