zombie debt collectionAnyone who’s ever had a bill or credit card go into default knows how annoying debt collectors can be. The unfortunate reality of today’s financial landscape makes it so any debt you have can be passed on to collection agencies, which often sell debts to other collection agencies. This can make it impossible for people to tell what the outstanding debt they’re being contacted about actually is — or if it’s even legitimate. Scammers are taking advantage of this confusing system by calling people to harass them about a debt that doesn’t even exist. Called zombie or phantom debt collection scams, these schemes have been on the rise now for quite some time, with the FTC filing eight cases against 61 defendants over phony debt collections since 2012, and it’s important you know how to spot a legitimate debt collector from a fake.

Here’s how zombie debt collection scams work:

After gathering up personal information on the intended victim, such as your social security number, work information, etc., the faux debt collector will call and try to convince you that a debt is owed. They will use the information they have on you to try and create doubt in your mind and make you think perhaps you actually do owe the amount. The majority of these scammers aren’t after a huge amount of money — instead, they ask for a couple hundred dollars, just enough to make a profit off of their victims without raising huge red flags right off the bat. Threats of legal action or wage garnishment coupled with constant harassment are often all it takes for victims to cave. In some instances the victim is mailed a bill for some balance, and then when they call the “collection agency” listed on the bill to inquire, they are threatened and harassed until they agree to pay.

Research into these scams has shown that many of the targets are low-income people, especially those who have applied for payday loans. In general, those with less money are more vulnerable and easy to intimidate when it comes to financial matters — making them the perfect targets for phantom debt collection scams. Sometimes the debts are completely made up, other times they are existing debts that are too old to collect or were never truly owed.

How can I protect myself from fake debt collectors?

In general, there are a few ways you can spot a phony debt collection scam from an honest collector. It might be tempting in the moment to panic and give them what they’re asking for, but if you remain calm and keep these tips in mind, you have a better shot at not unwittingly handing your money over to a thief.

1. Check your credit reports. Although it’s not one of the first things victims think of when they receive a bill in collections, checking your credit reports can easily confirm the legitimacy of a debt, as it should be listed on your credit reports. There are a couple of ways you can go about checking your credit reports. The first is through AnnualCreditReport.com, which legally allows you to obtain one copy of all three of your credit reports (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) every year. If you’ve already checked your reports through AnnualCreditReport.com or would like to get copies of your credit scores (something you’ll have to pay for through the previously-mentioned service), a credit report monitoring service is likely your best bet.

These services provide up-to-date access to your credit reports and scores so you can not only get a copy immediately after signup, but also view your reports all year round. Additionally, top-rated credit report monitoring services alert you when changes are made to your credit reports so you can immediately check it out and ensure an error hasn’t been made. Since they send text and email alerts, you can rest assured that you’ll be notified in the event something changes. Most credit monitoring services offer free trials, which is perfect if you just want to check your credit reports and scores once but don’t want to pay for a service. If you do want to keep the service, though, most cost less than $15/month, which isn’t a bad price for peace of mind.

If you want additional protection features plus credit monitoring, an identity theft protection service might be your best bet — particularly one like Identity Guard that provides comprehensive credit report monitoring as well as thorough identity theft protection.

2. Always verify the caller’s information. No matter how much of your information a debt collector seems to have, if you aren’t sure whether or not the call is legitimate, you have every right to request the company’s name, address and phone number so you can verify it. If they refuse to provide information, or your research, such as a simple Google search, turns up complaints about the company being dishonest, then you should report the caller to the FTC. You can also contact your creditor to verify what collection agency, if any, they are using to collect what you owe. A real debt collector should be able to provide verification that the debt is real in written form.

3. Remember you can tell them to stop contacting you. Debt collectors must follow a strict set of guidelines set out by the FTC, which includes when they can and cannot contact you as well as that you have a right to request that they stop. In order to do so, you must send a letter (and it’s a good idea to keep a copy of the letter and have it sent by certified mail so you can prove it was delivered) asking them to stop contacting you. Legitimate debt collectors must adhere to these rules, so you should absolutely question those who don’t comply. All-hours harassment and a refusal to let up indicate that you are dealing with an unscrupulous debt collector or a flat-out scammer.

4. Don’t respond to threats, no matter how intimidated you might feel. These types of scammers hang their hopes on being able to bully and break down their victims to get what they want. Remember that harassment and threats are illegal, so any caller telling you that they can bring immediate arrest, litigation or wage garnishment if you don’t pay up is absolutely not telling the truth. Phone scams of this sort are surprisingly common, and they even topped the IRS’s Dirty Dozen list last year, but that doesn’t stop people from falling for them. If someone threatens you over the phone, hang up and report the call to your local authorities or the FTC immediately. If you’re worried about your elderly relatives becoming victims of phantom debt collection scams, talk to them to create an action plan for what they should do if they receive a strange phone call from a debt collector.

5. Be careful when and where you provide your information. Zombie debt collection scams thrive on the ability to present enough personal information to make the targets feel as though they’re being contacted by a real debt collector. After all, if they know so much about you, they must be telling the truth. Right? Wrong. The sad fact of the matter is, it’s very easy these days for just about anyone to find information on someone without searching very hard. Between oversharing on social media and other websites and people handing their information when filling out online forms, it’s very easy for your information to fall into the wrong hands if you aren’t careful with it. So, think twice before writing down your contact information, social security number and other vital data.

Follow our scams blog to learn more about protecting yourself from fraudsters and visit our credit report monitoring reviews to see which service may be the best for you.