3. False Facebook friends. It's no surprise that more debt collectors are using social media to collect information about debtors.
Typically, they use Facebook and other websites to locate debtors or get information about the person's assets. Sometimes, collectors set up fake profiles to befriend their targets, impersonate real "friends," or engage in harassment, such as posting messages advertising that the person owes a debt. Such harrassment violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (PDF).
- Your defense: Whether or not you owe a debt, set your Facebook privacy settings so your profile is visible only to known and vetted friends. Accept Friend requests only from people you know and trust. Above all, realize there are no secrets in cyberspace, and scammers also troll social media. So keep your personal info truly "personal."
4. High-mileage hoaxes. In one classic debt collection scam, local crooks pose as police or government agents and telephone debtors — or even people who owe nothing — to threaten immediate arrest unless a supposed debt is paid. Now some of these impostors are calling from far-away places, like India.
Such was the case of a scam ring recently busted by the Federal Trade Commission. Over the course of two years, fraudsters claiming to be "Officer Mike Johnson" or reps of fake government agencies (including the "Federal Crime Unit of the Department of Justice") made more than 2.7 million calls to at least 600,000 numbers nationwide. All told, they bilked victims of more than $5.2 million.
The callers claimed to be watching their targets or standing by just blocks away from their homes or workplaces for an imminent arrest, but in fact were thousands of miles away in India (although the alleged ringleader was based in California).
- Your defense: Even if a caller has your personal information such as an address or Social Security number, be aware that those details could have been purchased for use in extorting money from you. Insist on getting written proof of any claimed debt, and then carefully check the claims and company before paying anything. And use common sense: Since when do police give advance warning that they're going to make an arrest?
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.
Also of interest: The savings vs. debt payoff dilemma.