Over the past decade, America has truly transitioned into a debtor society. Despite high unemployment, record foreclosures and tough economic times, consumers are more likely to borrow than delay when making a purchase. With consumers having obligations to multiple financial institutions, keeping accurate records and documentation can become a challenge. Opportunistic con-artists posing as fake “debt collectors” recognize this as an area of vulnerability and are more than willing to use it to their advantage.
On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on a California-based company that used call centers in India to make fake and often very threatening debt collection calls to consumers in the United States. Following a complaint filed by the agency, a U.S. district court in Chicago ordered a halt to such calls.
In this first of its kind case, call centers in India were used to make fake debt collection calls to unsuspecting Americans. The FTC alleged that over $5 million was collected through the scam until shut down by the court.
According to the FTC’s complaint, American Credit Crunchers and Varang K. Thaker obtained information, including addresses, Social Security and bank account numbers, on consumers who had inquired, applied for or obtained online payday loans. Thaker worked with telephone “debt collectors” in India who called consumers using deceptive statements and threats to persuade them to pay debts that were not owed or that he was not authorized to collect.
Thaker and his companies falsely told consumers they were delinquent on a loan, that they had the authority to collect them and that they must pay immediately. The fake debt collectors also falsely claimed to be law enforcement officers or attorneys while making threats against those who refused to pay the alleged debts. These threats included arrest or imprisonment. Many consumers felt so threatened that they paid the alleged debts out of fear of being arrested or sued.
These fake debt collectors spoke English with a foreign accent and called themselves “Affidavit Consolidation Services,” Criminal Bureau of Identity,” “U.S. National Bank,” “U.S. Justice Department/Payday Loan Division,” “Federal Investigation Bureau,” “United Legal Processing” and other phony names. They refused to disclose real names and addresses and were believed to be operating from homes and automobiles in India. As these scammers kept themselves well hidden, law enforcement authorities had previously been unsuccessful in locating or shutting them down.
“This is a brazen operation based on pure fraud, and the FTC is committed to shutting it down,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Consumers should not be pressured into paying debt they don’t remember owing. Legitimate debt collectors must provide consumers with both written information about the debt and instructions for protecting themselves if they don’t think they owe the debt.”
Fake debt collectors typically pose as lawyers, law enforcement officers, investigators and bankers while attempting to collect on phony debt. They threaten consumers with immediate arrest for “bank fraud” or other crimes unless funds are wired immediately. They scare and confuse consumers by using meaningless legal phrases such as “We are downloading warrants against you” or “We are filing an affidavit against you.” Consumers who do not immediately fall for the scam are warned, “Only God can help you now.”
Fake debt collectors almost always call consumers at work — sometimes several times a day — advising their supervisors, “Your employee has committed bank fraud and is about to be arrested.” Such threats have been unsettling to consumers and employers. Because the scammers make a special point of calling at work, employers should realize that their employee is an innocent victim of a criminal enterprise and cannot stop the calls voluntarily.
A debt collector may contact you in person, by mail, e-mail, telephone, telegram or fax. A collector may not contact you with such frequency that can be considered harassing. A debt collector may not contact you at work if he knows your employer does not disapprove, nor may he contact you at unreasonable times or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
A debt collector is required to send written notice within five days of first contact advising the amount due. The notice must also specify the name of the creditor and what action to take if you wish to dispute the debt.
You may stop a debt collector from contacting you by writing a letter asking for no more communication. Once the agency receives it, it may not make further contact except to advise there will be no further contact or to notify you of a specific action contemplated by the creditor.
A debt collector may not harass or abuse a consumer. A collector may not use threats of violence against a person, property or reputation; use obscene or profane language; advertise the debt; or repeatedly make calls with the intent to harass or abuse the person at the called number.
A debt collector may not use false statements, such as implying he is an attorney; that you have committed a crime; that he operates or works for a credit reporting agency; misrepresent the amount of a debt; or indicate that papers mailed are legal forms when they are not.
A debt collector may not threaten arrest or seize property or garnishee wages unless the collection agency or creditor intends to do so; or that a lawsuit will be filed when the collector has no legal right to file or does not intend to file such a suit.
To file a complaint against a debt collector — real or fake — contact your state attorney general’s office at www.naag.org. To learn more about fake debt collectors and how to protect yourself from becoming a victim, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website at www.ftc.gov.
Bill Lewis is principal of William E. Lewis Jr. & Associates, a solutions-based professional consulting firm. To learn more, please visit www.williamlewis.us.