They make harassing phone calls, claiming that they are law enforcement agents. They threaten to revoke your driver’s license, prosecute you and lock you up. All for debts that aren’t yours.
The National Consumers League says on its website ( www.fraud.org) that thousands of consumers are being bullied into paying debts they don’t owe.
There are many variations, but all scams boil down to one harsh message: wire us money or be in big trouble.
The perpetrator of one such scam received a harsh message last week. A complaint filed by a U.S. attorney in New York charged Williams Scott and Associates of Georgia with scamming $4 million from 6,000 consumers in all 50 states. The complaint charges that over a five-year period, the company had employees pose as police officers, Justice Department officials or FBI agents.
An affidavit filed by a real FBI agent says callers claimed falsely that people owed money for payday loans or had committed fraud.
The affidavit says the scheme involved up to 87 different phone numbers, changing when the scammers realized there were too many complaints. One script seized in an FBI raid includes this exchange between a caller and a frightened woman.
“You think an eight months pregnant woman wants to go to jail?”
“I don’t care if you’re nine months pregnant. I have a job to do.”
When I called Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, principal examiner David Leach was helping a woman whom scammers had tried to dupe.
The scammer had claimed to be from the “Kennebec County Private Locating Service” and said there was legal action pending. When the consumer called the Kennebec County court clerk’s office, she found nothing pending and no record of the “locating service.”
“Scam collectors will do anything to collect money,” Leach told me. He said the fake phone calls “started in Maine sometime in the summer of 2014 and may have peaked somewhere in October.”
However, Leach said this is the most frequent consumer complaint his office deals with.
In some cases, people have taken out payday loans from illegal, unlicensed lenders and repaid the money. The lenders sell their names and other personal information to illegal, unlicensed collectors who then put their defrauding machinery to work.
Consumers may believe these calls are real because the scammers have some personal details about them. If you get such a call, ask for the caller’s name and address, company name and original creditor, if you do have an outstanding loan.
If the caller demands a lot more than you owe, it’s likely a scam. If you have questions about the status of a real loan, hang up and call the number on your loan paperwork.
If you get a call and are uncertain, ask the caller to send a written notice of the debt; then say you don’t want to be called again. That request must be honored, according to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
You can find sample letters drafted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at the “self-help/action letters” tab on our blog ( necontact.wordpress.com).
Some consumers hire an attorney. Giving callers the attorney’s name and number usually stop such calls, when scammers realize the person isn’t an easy target. Report suspicious calls to the Maine Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, 1-800-436-2131 or email consumer.mediation@Maine.gov.
Advise the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/complaint.
The federal prosecutor says it’s likely that more cases will be brought in the future. He says payday lenders may be among those prosecuted.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.