About a week ago, I was made aware of a fraud group operating from a Tampa, Florida number, who were calling people and using some pretty heavy-handed tactics to collect (steal) money. Interestingly enough, the person that let me know about this had never done business with the company they were impersonating.
Please note, there might be a reason for alarm even if you don't think you owe a debt and a collector calls. With more and more people becoming identity theft victims, a call from a collector could be the first notification a person gets that someone else is using their information. Of course, in this instance, since the calls were bogus, it is not the case. In fact, if you give these scammers any information they can use, you will likely become an identity theft victim yourself.
The person who provided me with this information also provided me with the number she was called from. I called the number and, after a slight delay, I got a person with a Indian accent, who identified himself as "William Scott" from ACS, Inc. Leading him on, I told him my wife was always getting us into trouble by borrowing money — and that we had received a message to call them. He asked me for my wife's name and I made one up. He then told me to wait a minute, while he looked up the file. After about a minute, he said he had located the file and that she owed $500.00, and said this was a "serious legal issue we needed to get cleared up right away." He even offered to settle for $300.00, if I paid that day with a debit/credit card.
During my conversation with William, I could hear the chatter of other calls being made. Listening carefully, I noted that all the people, "chattering" in the background seemed to have Southern Asian (probably Indian) accents. This leads me to believe that the call was being forwarded, possibly overseas. This is not hard to do and there are a lot of legitimate call centers where callers are forwarded from a local number, all over the world.
I gave him an e-mail address so he could send me a payment authorization form and he told me to fill it out, sign it and e-mail it back to him. About an hour later. I got the form coming from an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org. It asked for personal identifiers, the card number, billing address, zip code, expiration date and CVC number. There is very little doubt in my mind if I had sent the form back to him the account I gave them would have been promptly cleaned out.
I ran the number (813-434-4611) on a site called PhoneValidator.com, which tells you what company a number belongs to and if it is a cell phone or a landline. This number belongs to a PaeTec Communications in Tampa, Florida. PhoneValidator.com offers two additional tools after you run the number. One is primarily a paid search (how they make money), but they offer Google results, also. When I ran the Google results, it identified the same scam, I had run into. One site, 800notes.com, had quite a few comments about it.
The payment authorization letter listed a fax number of 646-786-4401. I ran that number and it went to a landline in New York. Again, I ran the Google results, which revealed more people getting faux collection calls. Besides the fax number on the authorization letter — designed to clean out a payment card — was another number (813-435-1963) to call them back. Although, it was another Tampa number, it went to different telecom outfit. By running the Google results, lo and behold, more complaints about phony collection calls were found, some of which stated that some pretty crude and disgusting comments were made by some of these fake collectors.
Based on the comments, it appeared that this activity had been going for a long time, and the Indian accents seems to be a common theme. I did report this to the authorities — but besides getting an initial call back — I haven't heard anything from them since then.
It is not uncommon for scammers to set up legitimate sounding numbers, either. As long as the bill gets paid, very little due diligence is conducted by telecom types to ensure a number actually belongs to what it says it does. Sometimes the numbers are paid for with stolen financial instruments, and it is not uncommon to call one back a week later and find it has been disconnected.
I did more research on this activity and discovered that the BBB had an interesting write-up about similar (if not the same) fraudulent collection activity. The report lists 67 complaints they had received. Another write-up in August of 2009 from the BBB suggested that the scammers had so much personal information about the victims — a data breach was suspected. In this case, it was reported that the people behind this had social security numbers, addresses and how to contact their relatives. It also stated that people were being threatened with criminal prosecution, if they did not pay.
If you are called by a collector and you do not know anything about the debt they are talking about, you should always ask them to send you documentation proving that you owe the debt. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has information on their site on what your rights are and the specific laws that legitimate collection agencies have to follow. You can also file an online complaint (highly recommended if you suspect abuse) and even watch a video on how to do it properly. They also provide a number (1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261) if you want to speak with a live human being.
The phenomenon of fraud by telephone is becoming more and more common. Officially dubbed "vishing," which is phishing by telephone, the people behind it spoof financial institutions to gather personal and financial details to commit identity theft and financial crimes. Cheap long distance — enabled by VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) — and caller ID spoofing (which is legal) have made vishing pretty easy to accomplish.
If you get a phone call that doesn't make sense, take a deep breath and then make sure the person calling you is legitimate before proceeding!