- The Federal Trade Commission is in the process of returning more than $1 million to consumers duped by a phantom credit collection scheme.
- If you are contacted about unpaid balances, whether they are fake or legit, there are some steps you should take to protect yourself.
Almost 2,000 consumers who were conned into paying debts they didn't owe are in the process of getting their money returned to them.
More than $1 million, or an average of $516 for each payment, is being returned to the victims either via PayPal or a mailed check, the Federal Trade Commission recently announced. "Consumers will be recovering all the money they lost to the scammers," the FTC noted.
The phantom debt collection scheme — which used names including GAFS Group, Global Mediation Group and Mediation Services — pressured consumers to pay the false debts by threatening to take legal action against them.
If you know your rights and financial situation, it's less likely that you may be duped by a similar scheme, according to Bruce McClary, senior vice president of membership and communications at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
But if you don't, you may be susceptible to handing over your money.
"If you're not aware of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and you're not aware of your rights as a consumer, it would be very easy for a scammer to conjure up all kinds of scenarios that would frighten you out of your mind," McClary said.
These five steps can help prevent that scenario.
If you're contacted by a credit collection agency, regardless of whether or not it sounds legitimate, you should request a debt validation letter, McClary said.
The letter will require the debt collector to prove they're legally collecting the balances owed, he said.
"If they don't respond with that kind of proof, then you're not legally obligated to send them a penny," McClary said.
It's especially important to be diligent about saving your financial records in case circumstances like this crop up, McClary said.
That goes for all accounts you owed and how they were handled, regardless of whether you paid in full or settled for an amount less than what you owed.
"You should have verification in either scenario that shows you honored your commitment and shows the record of those debts," McClary said.
By regularly checking your credit report, you can see that status of both your current and past accounts.
That can give you better clarity than if you try to recall those details on your own, McClary said.
To be sure, a credit report may not show everything. It is possible you owe outstanding debts from years past that are within the statute of limitations on debt collection that can still be legally collected, McClary noted.
Consumers should familiarize themselves with their rights to better protect themselves from creditors, McClary said.
Getting to know the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is a good place to start, he said. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also provides information that details how fair debt collection practices should work in easy-to-understand terms.
"The first tool that a scammer uses is a psychological tool," McClary said. "They create a sense or urgency where there really is no sense of urgency to begin with."
If you do determine the debt is legitimate, it is possible to negotiate with the debt collection agency to come up with a plan to pay them that you can afford, McClary said.
To do that, you may want to talk to a non-profit credit counselor or agency, which can be found on the National Foundation for Credit Counseling's website.
"I would recommend that as a step if you're struggling financially," McClary said.
Those professionals can also work with you to help avoid the situations that resulted in debt collection.