8 Tips to Show If Debt Collector Is Legit

  • Is that debt legit?

    That angry voice on the phone insists you owe a debt you've never paid. But you don't recognize the debt or the collector.

    Before you apologize or promise to pay, consider another scenario: It's not your debt at all.

    It could be a con -- a ruse by a clever scammer. Or it could be a case of "tagging," in which a collector chases you for a debt that belongs to someone else.

    Both scenarios pose problems for consumers, advocates and regulators.

    "It's increasingly becoming more common," says Nadine Samter, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission. Much of it is unintentional: debt buyers who haven't done their due diligence, she says. But some of it is phishing, she says. Con men "get an account number and just try and get money."

    So how can you tell if that letter or phone call is a genuine debt, a case of mistaken identity or a scam? There are a number of handy tricks you can use. Here are eight.

  • Shift the conversation

    Whether it's a real debt or a scam, the caller is going to ask questions. Put on the brakes and ask a few of your own. A legit collector will answer.

    "No matter who calls you, you don't give out account information and you don't confirm information," Samter says.

    Legally, the onus is on the caller to provide the details to back up the claim. "You need to ask what the debt is from," says Sonya Smith-Valentine, an attorney with Valentine Legal Group LLC in Largo, Md., which represents consumers in debt collections.

    "They've got to give you some basis" for the debt, she says. "If they're not doing that, there's something wrong. You want to turn the conversation into a fact-finding mission on your end. Keep peppering them with as many questions as possible."

    A real collector should provide the basics: name, company name, address and phone number.

    But scammers might refuse. "Sometimes they will say 'no,' or that they've already sent the information," Smith-Valentine says. "Sometimes they'll come out and say, 'We don't have to.' But that's not true. If somebody is pushing back that hard, it should set off some red flags."

  • Receive confirmation

    A genuine debt collector has five days from the first phone call to send you written confirmation of the debt. Most send the letter first, then call, says Joel D. Leiderman, senior associate attorney with Forster & Garbus LLP in Commack, N.Y., which handles debt collections for creditors.

    That confirmation letter should be more than a demand to pay, he says. It should also spell out some of your own rights and include information on the collection agency, such as the company name, mailing address and phone number, Leiderman says.

  • Verify that the agency exists

    Just because the collection agency is legit doesn't mean the debt is yours. Collectors do make mistakes. But at least you can make sure the debt isn't an outright scam.

    Plug the company name and/or the phone number into an Internet search engine. Contact your state attorney general's office or department of consumer affairs. Is the company licensed or allowed to work in your state? Have there been complaints about it?

    If the collector claims to be with an attorney's office, check out the firm with the state bar association or the office of court administration, Leiderman says.

    If it is legit, you may also want to call and verify that the company contacted you. Some scammers will claim to be from genuine collection firms or attorney's offices, he says.

    At the same time, you don't want to share any personal information until you decide how you want to handle the matter.

    If you suspect a scam, you can file a report with the police and the state attorney general's office. You can also report bogus debt collection to the Federal Trade Commission.

  • Pull your credit history

    "Consumers ought to be checking their credit reports at least once a year," Samter says.

    Credit reports can provide a quick snapshot of your current debts. All your current creditors are listed, along with their contact information and your obligations to them. Unsettled debts generally stay on for seven years. You can get each of your three reports free every year at AnnualCreditReport.com or by calling (877) 322-8228.

    So if someone alleges you owe money and it's not listed there, there's a good chance it's a scam, a case of mistaken identity, or a real debt that is past the statute of limitations for collections (often three to six years, depending on the state where you live).

    Just because the debt is listed there doesn't mean it really is yours. In "tagging" situations, sometimes collectors have been known to list the debt on an innocent third party's credit report.

    One more clue: Along with debts, look at the inquiries listed on your credit report, says Smith-Valentine. What you'll find out: if the collector in question has viewed your credit file.

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