Debt Collector or Scammer: How to Tell the Difference?

Learn the red flags that indicate an alleged debt collection caller is actually a scammer trying to get your money.

Updated By , Attorney

Scammers sometimes pose as debt collectors and collection agencies and try to get consumers to pay them. These types of scam artists often use abusive and harassing tactics to frighten you into providing bank and other personal information while you falsely believe that you're paying real debts.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a legitimate collection agency and a scammer. So, be on the alert for red flags that indicate the collection call you've received probably isn't from a legitimate collection agency. Pay attention to these warning signs if you get a call from an alleged debt collector so you can avoid becoming the next victim.

How the Fake Debt Collection Scam Works

The scam is straightforward. Scammers will call consumers to collect debts, posing as real collection agencies. Often, the scammers will have already accessed your personal information through identity theft or by obtaining your credit report. By doing this, they will often appear to be "collecting" debts that you actually owe, making the scam seem very believable.

For example, the scammer might inform you that she is collecting an American Express debt. You might actually owe money to American Express, and so you believe the caller works for them. The scam is that the caller has no relationship to American Express, and whatever money you fork over isn't going to that company. Instead, the money goes into the scammer's pocket, as well as any other funds the scammer can access with the financial information you provide.

How to Tell If You're Being Scammed

Here are some tips to help you determine whether you're talking to a real collection agency on the phone or a scammer.

The Caller Is Abnormally Harassing and Abusive

Although legitimate collection agencies have been known to use illegal and abusive collection tactics, scammers will often use over-the-top, aggressive, blatant threats. They will tell you that you're being served with a lawsuit immediately. Or they might say that they've contacted the police or that you might be arrested. These are, of course, false threats.

The Caller Demands Payment "Today"

A scammer will often insist on payment "today." The scammer might tell you that you'll have to pay a penalty if you don't come up with the money immediately, threaten to file a lawsuit by the end of the day, or make some other threat. Of course, collection agencies also want to be paid immediately. But rarely will they threaten immediate punishment or similar action if you don't make a payment by the end of the day.

The Caller Doesn't Accept Various Forms of Payment

Most collection agencies will accept payment through some combination of mail, phone, website, or debit card. They want your money no matter how you get it to them. A scammer will usually insist on payment in a single way, like an instant bank transfer.

The Caller Refuses to Give a Physical Address or Name

If the collector can't give you an actual mailing address, or even the full name of the company you owe money to, that's a sure sign of a scam. Any legitimate collection agency will readily give you this information.

The Caller Refers You Back to the Original Creditor for Information

A real collection agency knows something about your debt or will contact the original creditor themselves for information it doesn't have—a real collection agency won't tell you to contact the original creditor. If the collector can't provide you with basic information about the debt, like the date of default, amount of principal and interest, account number, whose name the debt is in, or other information, or it refers you to the original creditor for such information, you're likely talking to a scammer.

Someone Answers the Phone Immediately When You Call

Real collection agencies have complex phone systems, or receptionists, which route your call to a collection agent. If you call and the collector answers the phone directly, they're likely using a cell phone, a telltale sign of a scammer.

You Keep Dealing With the Same Person

Legitimate agencies have multiple collection agents, and it doesn't matter which one you deal with. If you keep talking to "Frank Jones" every time you call, it's a sign that you might be speaking to a scammer.

What to Do If You Think You're Being Scammed

The best thing you can do is not to pay anything or give away any of your personal information until you do some further research to find out if the caller is legitimate or not. Here's how.

Run an Internet Search for the Caller's Phone Number

If it's a scammer, your search will likely reveal others with similar problems. Some websites are devoted to discussions about collectors. If you input the number the collector is calling from or the number where she requested you call, you might find others who have been threatened in the exact same ways that you have.

Call the Original Creditor

The original creditor should be able to tell you which company it hired to collect your debt or which company purchased it.

What If the Caller Is a Scammer?

If you're convinced that the caller is, in fact, not a legitimate collection agency, the best thing you can do is ignore the calls. Scammers want quick turnaround and easy prey. If you don't respond, they'll move on to someone who will. Once scammers believe that you're frightened or convinced that you owe the debt to them—and once they know you'll answer the phone when they call—they see you as a target and won't let up.

Getting Help

If you suspect you're a victim of a scam, you may report it to the Federal Trade Commission (877-FTC-HELP). If you're receiving harassing calls from a legitimate debt collector, consider talking to an attorney to find out what you should do in your particular circumstances.

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