By Richard Kitterman
Special to the Daily Herald
Consumers who owe money or are behind on their bills may be legitimately contacted by debt collectors to pay off debts. The BBB warns consumers, however, that phony debt collectors are lurking and even some legitimate debt collectors have been known to employ abusive and illegal tactics.
Sometimes the "debt collector" calling turns out to be an identity thief who is trying to get you to divulge personal or financial information, such as your Social Security, bank and credit card numbers.
Harker Heights resident and owner of Killeen Eyecare Center, Dr. Austin Ruiz, called me last week concerned that he may have been the intended victim of identity theft under the guise of debt collection.
He had received a call that morning from someone who said she represented a legal services office and was attempting to collect a nearly 4-year-old debt in excess of a thousand dollars.
The information the caller had that identified Ruiz was publicly available; home address and phone number. The personal and financial information that would identify the borrower - Social Security number and date of birth - was not his.
After analyzing the details of the phone conversation and speaking with a supervisor at the business that called him, I was able to advise Ruiz that he was likely the victim of mistaken identity through the co-mingling of accurate and inaccurate information relating to a legitimate debt owed by someone with the same or a similar name.
Oftentimes, scammers will impersonate debt collectors in an effort to scare consumers, through threats and harassment, into paying non-existing debts.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from a consumer in Killeen, who prefers I not use her name, telling me she had received an extremely threatening phone call from an someone who represented himself as an attorney, but wouldn't leave his name. She described the caller as "a man with a thick, probably Asian accent."
The caller threatened to contact her employer and have her arrested unless she immediately paid $752. Certain that the debt was not hers, she refused to pay.
The great news is that both Ruiz and the Killeen consumer handled the calls exactly right.
Neither consumer provided any new personal or financial information, both refused to pay the alleged debt, requested validation of the debt and immediately reported the incident.
In a recent release of the top complaints reported to the Better Business Bureau, with 15,000 complaints, collection agencies ranked fifth in number of complaints received.
It's important for consumers to verify the alleged debt before taking action. BBB recommends doing the following:
Request written proof. Get documentation to help determine if the callers are actually identity thieves or if a debt is actually owed. By law, a debt collection agency must provide a validation notice within five days of contacting you about the debt. Within 30 days of receiving their validation notice, send the debt collector a written request to further verify the debt details. Do not provide personal or financial information unless the validity of the debt and the debt collector has been confirmed.
Verify the legitimacy. Get the debt collector's name and contact information to research the agency further. Search on the Internet to see if they have a website or a BBB Business Review at www.bbb.org. Cross-check contact information and call them using a phone number from a public or online directory. Verify that the representative who called is affiliated with the agency.
Avoid phony calls. Be wary if the debt cannot be verified or if no documentation is received. Advise them to stop contacting you and register with the National Do Not Call Registry at www.DoNotCall.gov or (888) 382-1222.
If you do not owe the alleged debt, BBB recommends doing the following:
Don't ignore the collector. It is best to respond immediately, even if you don't believe the debt is yours. Otherwise, the collector may continue contacting you or file a judgment.
Richard Kitterman is executive director of the Better Business Bureau for Central and South Central Texas.