Telephone Debt-Collection Scams: Should You Fear Your Phone?

Your telephone rings. The caller claims to represent a debt collection company and says you owe money for an old debt. The caller knows your name and where you live, so you think it must be real. The caller insists you must repay the debt or they will sue you, take your car and home, send you to jail, or even send people to your residence to pick up the money. Alarmed and scared, you make a payment. Later, you wonder, “What did I just do?”
   
Debt collection scams are a huge problem today. It is virtually impossible to recover your money after you have become the victim of a telephone scam, but there you can take steps to lessen the likelihood of falling victim to these schemes.  

Q: How do I know if the debt collector is real? 
A: Most legitimate debt collection companies avoid obvious violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. For example, legitimate companies generally do not threaten to send representatives to your home or workplace, to put you in jail, or to report you to the local police or sheriff’s office. Federal law requires a debt collector to remove you from its call list at your request. Also, the law requires the debt collector to send a written response to a request for verification and validation of the debt. For more information about what legitimate debt collectors can and cannot do, review this article: https://www.ohiobar.org/ForPublic/Resources/LawYouCanUse/Pages/LawYouCanUse-469.aspx​

Q: What if the call came from a government agency? 
A: Scammers sometimes pretend to represent an official agency or legitimate business in order to make the call more threatening. One of the most repeated debt collection scams involves a voice message, purportedly from the IRS. The message warns it is a final attempt to reach you, and you must return the call immediately. Before returning the call, conduct an online search for the telephone number that was provided in the voice message. Odds are, others have already reported the number in connection with a scam.

Q: What should I do if I think the debt collector is a scammer? 
A: Refuse to provide financial information, your Social Security number, or any other personal information. Doing so gives a scammer access to your finances and/or an opportunity to steal your identity. Ask the caller for details about the debt, request the company’s name and mailing address, and then ask to be removed from the company’s calling list. A legitimate debt collector should agree to all of these requests; a scammer likely will not. 

If the collector has provided a name and address, but you either suspect a scam or doubt you owe the debt, write a letter saying you dispute the debt, and ask for debt verification and validation. Use certified mail with return receipt requested, and keep a copy of your letter. Learn more about requesting validation through the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau at: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/askcfpb/1695/ive-been-contacted-debt-collector-how-do-i-reply.html​

Q: What can I do if I have become a victim of a debt collection scam? 
A: File a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General’s office at: http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Individuals-and-Families/Consumers/File-A-Complaint, and with the Fair Trade Commission at: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov​. Sometimes these agencies can pursue state or national actions against scammers and obtain a refund for identified victims. These agencies do not pursue individual claims, however, so you should also report the false charges to your credit card company or bank. Frequently, your credit card company or bank will not hold you responsible for fraudulent charges incurred over a set amount, and may suggest ways to prevent future fraudulent activity. For example, if you have given your credit card or bank account information to a scammer, consider closing that account.

12/22/2016

This “Law You Can Use” consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by consumer protection advocate, Dayton attorney Mandy A. Jamison, of JAMISON LAW, LLC.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.

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