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3 dos, 3 don’ts, and 1 don’t-even-think-about-it

It’s a text that would make most people take notice: ALERT ALERT ALERT .. YOUR PAYMENT WAS DECLINED DUE TO AN INSUFFICIENT ACH TRANSACTION…CALL 866.597.3075. But it wasn’t really an alert. There wasn’t a declined payment. And an “insufficient ACH transaction” isn’t even a real thing.It’s a text that would make most people take notice: ALERT ALERT ALERT .. YOUR PAYMENT WAS DECLINED DUE TO AN INSUFFICIENT ACH TRANSACTION…CALL 866.597.3075. But it wasn’t really an alert. There wasn’t a declined payment. And an “insufficient ACH transaction” isn’t even a real thing. It was a deceptive text message sent by debt collectors to illegally lure purported debtors into contacting them. That’s just one example from three separate cases filed as part of an FTC law enforcement sweep called “Messaging for Money.” Taken together, the lawsuits against Unified Global Group, Premier Debt Acquisitions, The Primary Group, and affiliated individuals and corporations allege a veritablecon-ucopia of deceptive claims, unfair practices, and violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. What unites them is the use of misleading texts, just one way the FTC says some debt collectors are twisting technology to violate the law. Federal courts in New York and Georgia have entered orders to put a temporary halt to the defendants’ activities. But even at this early stage, the complaints in the Messaging for Money cases suggest 3 dos, 3 don’ts, and 1 don’t-even-think-about-it for other members of the debt collection industry. Don’t use deceptive texts to collect debts. It isn’t illegal in and of itself to use texts in debt collection. But no matter how debt collectors communicate with consumers, the law still applies. One particular concern in the Messaging for Money cases is that by sending misleading texts, debt collectors used false pretenses to get consumers to contact them. The technology may be new, but the tactic has a long and unsavory lineage. (For example, 40 years ago the FTC challenged the practice of encyclopedia salesmen quite literally getting their foot in the door by falsely claiming to be conducting educational surveys.) Representing a debt collection text as anything other than a debt collection text runs afoul of established standards. Do identify yourself.  Under Section 806(6) of the FDCPA, debt collectors have to make “meaningful disclosure” of their identity to consumers. No falsity, no flim-flam, and no fooling. The FTC says some defendants violated that provision by leaving threatening voicemails that didn’t disclose they were debt collectors. Others refused to identify who they worked for. Consumers have a right to know if collectors who contact them are authorized to collect on a debt. The rise of sleazy phantom debt collectors makes that right even more important. Do make the “mini-Miranda” disclosures required by law.  Section 807(11) of the FDCPA mandates what industry insiders call a mini-Miranda. In an initial communication with a consumer, the collector has to disclose that he or she is attempting to collect a debt and that any information obtained will be used for that purpose. Later communications also have to disclose that they’re coming from debt collectors. The FTC says that all three Messaging for Money cases involve violations of the mini-Miranda requirement. Do follow up with proper validation notices.  Within 5 days after the initial communication with a consumer, a debt collector has to send a written notice detailing certain specifics, including the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor, the procedure for disputing the debt, and other information outlined in Section 808(1) of the FDCPA. The FTC alleges the Messaging for Money defendants often didn’t follow up with the required notice. Some of them continued to press for payment even after consumers offered evidence that they didn’t owe the money. Don’t reveal the existence of a debt to third parties.  According to the FTC, some of the Messaging for Money defendants blabbed to third parties that the consumers in question owed money. Outside very specific and narrow procedures authorized by the FDCPA, Section 805(b) makes it illegal to tell others – including friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and employers – about a person’s debts. Don’t help yourself to more than you’re authorized to collect.  Section 808(1) of the FDCPA makes it illegal for debt collectors to collect any amount that isn’t expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or allowed by law. Among the prohibited categories are “any interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation.” According to the FTC, the “processing” or “convenience” fees one company imposed violate that part of the law. And now for that don’t-even-think-about-it. Don’t even think about falsely threatening people with arrest, imprisonment, lawsuits, wage garnishment, etc. – or impersonating people affiliated with the government or the legal system.  Let’s get this one off the table immediately: Debt collectors can’t have people arrested for not paying a private debt, so threats about arrest or jail are illegal. But that didn’t stop some of the defendants from making it seem like arrest was imminent. According to one complaint, a debt collector told the consumer the police would be sent to her husband’s workplace to arrest him for “defraudment of a bank.” Some defendants added to the credibility of the threat by suggesting a phony affiliation with a government agency. One example alleged by the FTC: voicemails left with consumers or family members claiming to be from “the State Officials Office,” threatening to dispatch “a uniformed officer to [the consumer’s] home or place of employment to enforce this body attachment.” Laying it on thick, the defendants often ended those messages with instructions to “secure any large animals or firearms on the premises.” As the Messaging for Money complaints illustrate, it’s also illegal to threaten consumers with civil lawsuits when the debt collector hasn’t filed or doesn’t intend to. And don’t even think about claiming a phony relationship to the judicial process. For example, the FTC says the defendants in one case falsely claimed, “I’m a process server with Primary Solutions, appointed to serve you papers for case [eight-digit number]. . .”  Other defendants lied to consumers about their affiliation with attorneys or law firms. The bottom line: Bogus bluffs and impersonations violate the FDCPA and the FTC Act. _______________ The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the nation’s consumer protection agency. The FTC works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace.

Don't Fall for Fake Weight Loss Products' Promises of Fitness

Watch out for the clever tricks scammers are using to sell phony weight loss products. Con artists create fake emails and news websites to lure in buyers, according to reports from the US Federal Trade Commission.

Watch out for the clever tricks scammers are using to sell phony weight loss products. Con artists create fake emails and news websites to lure in buyers, according to reports from the US Federal Trade Commission.

How the Scam Works:

You open an email from a friend, the message contains a link and a short message, "Hi, Oprah says it's excellent" or "Breaking news." You click the link, it leads to a "news" website promoting a weight loss supplement. The site is filled with endorsements from Oprah Winfrey, doctors and reporters for established media outlets. 

Want to try this "miracle" weight loss product? Don't do it! Scammers are hacking into email accounts and sending out messages to everyone on the victims' contact list. The alleged "news" website is built by scammers and filled with fake articles.  

How to Spot a Fake News Site 

Scammers create fake news websites and publish endorsements of their products. Here's how to spot a fake site: 

  1. Don't believe what you see: The site may have the logo of a legitimate news organization and photographs of reporters, but this can be easily copied from the real website. 
  2. Look for "first-hand" experience: These sites typically contain articles where "reporters" write about their first-hand experience using the product. The reporter claims a dramatic weight loss - like 25 lbs over several weeks - with little or no change in diet or exercise.
  3. The site has testimonials and "free" trail links. These fake news sites have testimonials or comments from supposedly satisfied customers on the site. The website contains links to other websites where you can buy the "weight loss" products or sign up for a "free" trial.

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The BBB is dedicated to fostering honest and responsive relationships between businesses and consumers in the U.S. and Canada, instilling consumer confidence and contributing to a trustworthy marketplace for all.

Jury duty scams on the rise

Being picked for jury duty can be stressful. Receiving a call from someone claiming to be with the local police department or district attorney's office who says you missed jury duty and are facing arrest is downright terrifying! Fraud.org is warning consumers to be on their guard against the so-called “jury duty” scam. Reports from police departments across the country suggest that this type of fraud is again on the rise.

Being picked for jury duty can be stressful. Receiving a call from someone claiming to be with the local police department or district attorney's office who says you missed jury duty and are facing arrest is downright terrifying! Fraud.org is warning consumers to be on their guard against the so-called “jury duty” scam. Reports from police departments across the country suggest that this type of fraud is again on the rise.

The scam works like this: a consumer receives a phone call or voice mail from someone claiming to be with their local police or sheriff’s department, district attorney’s office or the county courts. The caller states that the consumer has missed a jury duty summons and could be arrested if they don’t pay a fine. The caller may even claim that a warrant has already been issued for the consumer’s arrest.

If the consumer responds to the caller, she is instructed to send money to the caller (who is, in reality, a scammer) to pay a fine in order to avoid arrest. The consumer is asked to provide a bank account number, wire money, or put cash on a prepaid debit card like a Green Dot MoneyPak or similar card and send it to the scammer. In some cases, the scam may be used to trick a consumer into providing sensitive personal information such as a Social Security Number, date of birth, or credit card or debit card number.

This scam preys on consumers’ fear of law enforcement and unfamiliarity with how the jury duty summons process works. The caller may appear to be very legitimate -- with Caller ID showing a local number with police department information and an official-sounding voice on the phone. To help consumer see through these tricks, here are some red flags that consumers can use to spot these scams:

  • Courts almost exclusively contact consumers about jury duty or missed jury duty by postal mail, not by phone or email;
  • Court officials or police departments will never shake you down for payment or personal information over the phone;
  • If the call comes in the evening or at night, it’s a red flag. Real court-related calls should only come during normal business hours;
  • If the caller claims to be part of a “warranty amnesty program,” it’s likely a scam. Such programs typically require consumers with outstanding warrants (such as for failure to appear for a court date) to reach out to the courts on their own;
  • Asks to pay via wire transfer or prepaid debit card (such as MoneyPak, Reloadit or similar cards) are almost always a sure sign of fraud.

Concerned that you may have missed a jury duty summons or court date?

Contact your local courts directly by looking up the phone number online or in the phone book and calling them yourself.

You can listen to an example of a typical type of jury duty scam call at this link. Consumers should be aware that the jury duty scam is not exclusive to phone calls, either. Scammers have been known to send threatening emails, purportedly from the local court, in an effort to get a consumer to send money, provide sensitive personal information (which can lead to identity theft) or install malware.

Consumers who have received jury duty scam calls or emails should report them to Fraud.org via our secure online complaint form.

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Alliance Against Fraud and Fraud.org are projects of the National Consumers League (NCL), a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. Fraud.org is the product of more than two decades of consumer education and advocacy related to Internet and telemarketing fraud prevention.

Sweepstakes Con Gets a Real Life Twist

Scammers have given a classic lottery scam a cunning new twist by drawing on the real life story of a Mega Millions winner. Watch out for emails claiming that a recent lottery winner is giving you part of his fortune. It's really just a con.

Scammers have given a classic lottery scam a cunning new twist by drawing on the real life story of a Mega Millions winner. Watch out for emails claiming that a recent lottery winner is giving you part of his fortune. It's really just a con. 

 How the Scam Works:

You get an email that appears to come from a man named Harold Diamond. Mr. Diamond is a retired principal who won the largest Mega Millions jackpot in New York lottery history this winter. 

The email says Mr. Diamond is giving away part of his new fortune to five randomly selected people. You are so lucky! You've been chosen to receive a million dollars.  To collect the fortune, email Diamond's lawyer and mention a verification code number. The code will prove that you are official, and the lawyer will have further instructions. 

Don't do it! This scam may draw on current events, but it's a classic con. If you contact the "lawyer," he will ask for money under the guise of paying taxes or other fees.  No matter how much you send, it won't be enough! 

Tips to Protect Yourself From a Sweepstakes Scam:

Lottery and sweepstakes scams are common. Here are tips to avoid them: 

  • Don't pay up to claim your prize: You should never have to pay money or buy products in order to receive a prize. Be especially wary of wiring money or using a prepaid debit card.  
  • You can't win a contest you didn't enter: You need to buy a ticket or complete an application to participate in a contest or lottery. Be very careful if you've been selected as a winner for a contest you never entered.
  • Verify -- but not by using a source scammers give you. Check if an offer is real, but don't call the phone number in the email or website you suspect may be a scam. If it is a con, chances are the person on the other line will be involved, too.
  • The only legal lotteries in the United States are the official state-run lotteries. Foreign lotteries are illegal.    
__________________ The BBB is dedicated to fostering honest and responsive relationships between businesses and consumers in the U.S. and Canada, instilling consumer confidence and contributing to a trustworthy marketplace for all.