Consumers lost nearly $5.8 billion collectively to fraudulent practices in 2021 — an increase of over 70 percent from 2020 — according to the Federal Trade Commission. And potential fraudsters pounce on those who are most in need or the most likely to accept a fake offer.

If you’re not careful, you might find yourself on the receiving end of a personal loan scam where you could potentially lose money. However, you can learn how to check if a loan company is legitimate and avoid being a victim of fraud.

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1. The lender guarantees approval

Truly reputable lenders make it clear that they’ll need to look at your credit, sometimes getting reports from all three major credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian). Most lenders need to know whether you have a history of paying bills on time and in full to make sure you’ll be diligent about repaying a loan.

Fraudulent businesses aren’t interested in your creditworthiness. They tend to seek high-risk borrowers who are likely to fall behind on loan payments and incur excessively high late fees and penalties. Steer clear of any lender that guarantees approval or makes claims like:

  • “Everyone is approved!”
  • “We don’t care about your past. You deserve a loan!”
  • “Bad credit or no credit? No problem.”

Some reputable lenders offer bad credit loans. These lenders consider more than your credit score when determining your eligibility. However, these lenders will still typically ask for your income, employment information and education background before offering you a loan.

Takeaway: Make sure you’re working with a lender interested in your previous financial history, even if it isn’t all that great.

2. The lender isn’t registered in your state

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires lenders and loan brokers to register in the states where they conduct business. Check the lender’s website to verify the list of states where it legally conducts business. If a lender you’re interested in does not list registered states, you could be dealing with a loan scam.

Checking registration is a key step to ensure that you’re dealing with a reputable company, separating the frauds from legitimate businesses.

Takeaway: Verify lenders are registered in your state before sending over banking and personal details. If they don’t operate in your state, they don’t have the authority to loan you money.

3. The lender demands payment upfront

Some scammers have been known to require prepaid debit cards, gift cards or banking information from borrowers. Generally, the scammers claim they need the information for insurance, collateral or fees. This is a scam. Legitimate financial institutions may charge a fee for your application, appraisal or credit report, but those charges are deducted from your loan.

A prepaid card is a big red flag. It’s virtually as untraceable as cash, and you won’t be able to report it as stolen if you’ve given it to a lender. If you provide your banking credentials, it’s possible to file a dispute with your bank or credit union, but it could take some time for your claim to be investigated. Furthermore, you may not recoup the funds that are stolen from you.

Takeaway: A reputable lender won’t require money upfront to receive your loan proceeds. When the loan is funded, you should accept a wire transfer, direct deposit, or a check you can deposit into your checking account.

4. The lender calls, writes or knocks

If you get a loan offer by phone, through the mail or even through a door-to-door solicitation, be on your guard. According to the FTC, it’s illegal for companies to offer a loan in the U.S. over the phone and ask you to pay before they deliver. It’s a violation of The Telemarketing Sales Rule. However, it’s not illegal for lenders to send out general advertisements to consumers via email.

Some scammers go to great lengths to steal from consumers, including using a legitimate lender’s name. It’s also not uncommon for scammers to swap out the name and number that shows on your caller ID to trick you into believing they’re the real deal, the FTC notes.

You can protect yourself by ignoring solicitations and contacting the lender directly via their secured website or by calling the online customer service hotline. If the lender has no record of reaching out to you, that’s your confirmation that you were dealing with a scam artist.

Takeaway: A reputable lender will not target you over the phone, through direct mail or door-to-door solicitation. Look for lenders that advertise through traditional online and mass media.

5. The lender has no physical address

Every lender you’re interested in should provide a physical location. Run it through Google Maps just in case. Some businesses running personal loan scams will list addresses that are actually vacant lots, so it’s important to verify this.

Avoid the lender if you don’t find any sign of a physical address. Many fraudulent businesses are untraceable so they can avoid legal consequences.

Takeaway: Don’t do business with a company that cannot provide a physical address, and always verify that the address is legitimate before you proceed.

6. The lender pressures you to act immediately

Don’t fall for the urgency plea. One of the hallmarks of personal loan scams is giving you an immediate deadline to sign on for a loan because the offer expires quickly — like within a day. Or the lender could communicate that something bad is about to happen, like revoking your driver’s license or a lawsuit filing, if you hang up without acting fast.

Lenders that use such high-pressure tactics could be up to no good. It may be a ploy to get you to make a rash decision without having time to do your research to uncover the scam they’re running.

Takeaway: Avoid offers with immediate deadlines for you to make a choice. You should have days and possibly weeks to accept a loan offer.

7. The website is not secure

Anytime you are going to view lender information online, especially when you go to apply, the website should be secure. That means “https” should be at the start of the website address, and there should be a padlock icon.

A secured connection better protects any information that you submit. A company that doesn’t have a secured site and asks for said information doesn’t have your privacy or security in mind.

Takeaway: Legitimate lenders will have a secured website to protect any personal information you provide.

8. It sounds too good to be true

The reality is if a personal loan offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Legitimate lenders won’t just call you out of the blue with an irresistible loan offer. You likely won’t qualify for a loan with an unbelievably low rate without having to apply and undergo a hard credit pull.

Furthermore, don’t expect a letter in the mail from a random bank guaranteeing instant approval without having to formally apply. And an offer to receive the loan proceeds at a lightning-fast speed is another tell-tale sign of a personal loan scam.

Takeaway: No matter how good a personal loan offer sounds, if it sounds like a scam, it most likely is.

Common types of loan scams

Most types of loan scams seek to either extract money upfront or provide loan terms so unforgiving that borrowers will be subject to late fees or other charges. Some popular ones are:

  • Loan fee scam: Scammers may try to offer you a low-cost loan in exchange for hundreds or thousands of dollars of fees up front. After receiving these fees, they will cut off contact without providing any funds.
  • No-credit-check scam: Some legitimate personal loan lenders consider more than your credit score when approving you for a loan, but some scammers promise funds without a credit check. This is a red flag since your credit history is a major factor in assessing how risky of a borrower you are.
  • Private student loan forgiveness scam: The federal government offers student loan forgiveness programs for federal student loans. If a company approaches you promising to forgive your private student loans, it’s likely a scam.
  • Debt consolidation scam: Debt consolidation can help you streamline the process of repaying your debt and can save you money in the long run. If a debt consolidation company is being pushy or tells you to cease contact with your creditors, chances are it’s trying to scam you.

Who is most at risk for a loan scam

Scammers target people who are unsuspecting or may have trouble getting a loan through conventional means. Borrowers with a lot of debt, the elderly and people with bad credit are most at risk for these scams.

For instance, no-credit-check and payday loans may be particularly attractive to people with poor credit, since bad-credit loans from reputable lenders may come with high interest rates. Unfortunately, some scammers purchase lists of individuals who have searched or applied for these types of loan products online as they’re an easy target.

If you fall into a high-risk category, stay vigilant about any company that advertises a loan product that seems too good to be true for your situation. If in doubt, check that the company is licensed in your state or contact your state’s attorney general.

What to do if you think you’ve been scammed

While no one wants to think that they’ve been a victim of fraud, it can and does happen. The good news is that there are several steps you can take if you’ve been targeted.

  • Gather your documentation: If you have emails, screenshots or other documentation that will help your case, gather them to present to authorities when it’s time to contact them.
  • Contact your local law enforcement: By filling out a police report, you’ll have an official record.
  • Contact agencies specializing in oversight: After calling law enforcement, it’s time to contact your state attorney general’s office, the FBI, the FTC and the Better Business Bureau. With this information, these agencies can better serve and protect other consumers.
  • Talk about it with family and friends: As scammers evolve their tactics, it’s important to help others stay informed.
  • Place a fraud alert with one of the major credit bureaus: A fraud alert lets creditors know you may be a victim of fraud and that they should contact you to verify your identity before issuing new credit. Place it with one of the major credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — and it will notify the others.

How to spot a legitimate loan company

Even if you have below-average credit, many companies offer legitimate loans you could be eligible for. Below are some steps to follow when searching for a good lender.

  • Check for contact information: A lender’s phone number, email address and physical address should be readily available on the website, even if it’s an online-only lender.
  • Investigate online reviews: Customers posting on Google and Yelp will have the best insight into the experience of working with a lender.
  • Make sure it’s registered: Legitimate lenders must register with state agencies before giving out loans. Contact your state’s attorney general if you’re unsure if a lender is safe.

Guaranteed approvals, lack of licensure, upfront payment demands and unsolicited loan offers are all signs of a personal loan scam, and you should avoid lenders engaging in these types of behaviors at all costs.

Even if you don’t have great credit, plenty of personal loan lenders offer loans to borrowers in need regardless of credit status. Don’t be duped into falling for a scam. Instead, find a company willing to work with you where you are.