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How persistent and brazen are phantom debt collectors? Last month, when I emailed a firm named Advance Cash Services asking for comment on collection harassment allegations, the firm replied by saying I owed them $935.76 for an unpaid payday loan.

A few days later, I wrote about Susan Marquardt of Chicago, who says she was harassed by ACS, which alleged that she owed $4,526. And in the usual space reserved for comment from the accused company, we published the “comment” I’d received claiming I owed them money too. And we all had a laugh.

You might assume that national syndication of such a goofy incident would get ACS to “call off the dogs” on me. But you’d be wrong.

Late last week, ACS upped the stakes and sent me this email, suggesting “charges” against me were imminent:

Your Case File is being transferred to United States District Court 500 Pearl Street, New York, NY 10007 in order to take legal action against you within 48 Hours According to Section(9) and Chapter(19).

Having checked your Social Security Number through our National Checking Database System, and finding out that you have been never charged for a fraud activity,

If you fail to respond us the Charges will be pressed against the name are:

1. Violation of federal banking regulation act 1983 (C)

2. Collateral check fraud

3. Theft by deception (ACC ACT 21A)

NOTE: THIS CASE IS UNDER INVESTIGATION UNDER MAJOR CREDIT BUREAUS.

Yours sincerely

Advance Cash Services Collections & Legal Department.

Again, I replied to the note, telling the sender I was a reporter seeking a comment and this time noted that I wanted to give ACS a chance to comment because publication of this email was also imminent. Against my better judgment, I sent along a phone number so the firm could call me. I haven’t received a response yet.

I called a number listed for ACS on the Better Business Bureau website and was told I had reached a wrong number. I also tried many of the contact emails and phone numbers listed on this Washington State Department of Financial Institutions website on ACS warning about “what appears to be a collection scam” to no avail. That landing page was first created in 2011 but updated in 2015.

So, all at once you can see how relentless phantom debt collectors can be and how persistent that alleged scam is.

Dealing With a Phantom Debt

My story is funny, but phantom debt collection is no laughing matter. It is a scam that persists because it works.

Nearly every week brings news of some other operation being sued by state and federal officials. Last week, the Minnesota state attorney general sued an operation based in Jamaica. As an example, state officials said an elderly couple in St. Cloud paid $400 to pay off a payday loan from a firm she’d never heard of … and then received more harassing calls.

A quick scan of the Federal Trade Commission website shows dozens of similar actions by that agency, stretching over several years. Many of the cases involve consumers who did indeed apply for a payday loan online at some point. That meant they’d shared a lot of personal information, which somehow gets into the hands of phantom debt collectors. So that’s lesson No. 1 from this story: Applying for a high-interest, high fee payday loan online can lead to trouble in more ways than one. But the big lesson is this: Anyone can email you or call you and claim you owe them money. Anyone.

The only barrier is a phone number or an email address. After all, if you are running a debt collection scam, the marginal cost increase to adding your email or phone to their campaign is nearly zero. So you should take any message claiming you owe money with a grain of salt. It’s a best practice to always demand proof that the debt exists and always get a mailing address and phone number, then hang up and call back. It’s also good to have your state attorney general’s office on speed dial in case something seems wrong.

If you are reading this story, you probably know all this. But no doubt, somewhere among your set of friends and family is someone who is more vulnerable than you think. Maybe it’s an elderly relative who is easily confused; maybe it’s a friend who has silently fallen on hard times and does hold legitimate debts. (You can see how your debts are affecting your credit by viewing two of your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.) These folks can be tricked into paying up, so talk to them often. Ask them questions about their finances or even share this story with them so they’ll have some tips on hand for dealing with potential con-artists.

Image: MartinPrescott

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