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How the government shutdown makes you vulnerable to scams, fraud

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Consumers nationwide were blindsided Tuesday and Wednesday, when they received phone calls and e-mails from alleged debt collectors who are being accused of scamming the public while the government shutdown is in effect.

When the United States government ceased operations at midnight on October 1, 2013, all "non-essential" departments nationwide were shut down, as the general public seemed to have no recourse for the loss of support from state and federal branches. While "essential" services such as 911 operations, police, fire, EMS, and a few others remained active, the majority of government divisions were suspended until further notice.

While frustrations surrounding the shutdown continue to mount, an unexpected new complaint is on the rise: potential scams and unscrupulous debt collection tactics that have increased exponentially since the government ceased operations. While some are wondering how to survive without day-to-day government support, others are seeking out opportunities to make a quick buck during the chaos by breaking the law. It is a trend that continues to rise when government entities are stretched too thin, and one that many Americans don't consider to be a threat when considering the shutdown.

Since midnight October 1, 2013, thousands of consumers nationwide have turned to the World Wide Web to question mysterious phone calls and e-mails which have suddenly consumed their lives. Some of these callers/senders identify themselves as debt collectors; others as "legal agents"' or "investigators" claiming fraud has occurred against the person's social security number. According to the complaints, consumers from all over the country are receiving the calls, which appear not only mysterious but rather suspicious.

And while some calls may be legitimate, many assert they do not owe the alleged monies, and are desperately seeking help in stopping the harassment.

These calls, according to the complainants, vary in range from "aggressive" to "ferocious". While some callers claim the consumer's social security number may have been compromised, others contain flat-out threats of arrest warrants, personal humiliation, and possible incarceration. As the calls progress, the representatives offer to make the situation "disappear" if the victim agrees to pay a requested amount -- varying from a few hundred dollars to thousands; but like many real scams, these "agents" demand the money be paid quickly, and assert the consumer will face "major legal consequences" if the payment is not received. According to some reports, the "agents" claim to be in possession of a legal summons which -- upon receipt by the consumer -- will result in a complete "forfeiture of rights".

Ordinarily, when reports of alleged phone or e-mail fraud occur, the public may contact the Federal Trade Commission to inquire about the legitimacy of the communications. However, due to the government shutdown, websites -- and phone lines -- manned for the purpose of protecting consumers now house messages that those services are temporarily available.

For those looking to cash in by any means, it's a dream come true.

Some victims have contacted their local police departments to file harassment and fraud reports; others have taken to the Internet to seek additional information. Websites such as RipoffReport.com and 800notes.com have seen a dramatic increase in the number of complaints since October 1, 2013, numbering in the thousands. Search engine results containing the phone numbers of the originating calls are cropping up daily, with new complaints being filed by the hour. And through it all, consumers are confused, frustrated, and -- in some cases -- left feeling helpless by the manner in which they are being unexpectedly threatened.

Additional research by some posters have claimed a few of these calls are being traced back to online payday loan companies, credit card companies, and other debt collectors who may be attempting to seek reimbursement for alleged debts. Others are being given names of companies that, when researched, cannot be located or identified. And while it is currently unknown if these calls are originating from con artists or real companies, even legitimate entities which have the legal right to pursue collection efforts must follow rules set forth for the public's protection.

Even more disturbing are the reports that, when requesting a copy of documentation regarding the alleged debts, the conversation turns unusually aggressive. Reputable debt collectors understand that, if asked for proof of a debt, it is mandatory to provide paperwork associated with the alleged debt itself.

Whether or not the calls themselves are legitimate, the tactics being used are certainly not. While some are calling outside the specified window allowed for debt collection calls, others have crossed the line to include harassment, contacting victims repeatedly throughout the day, and threatening to show up at the consumer's home or place of employment.

And those attempting to find information about their rights are being met with a disheartening message by such government entities as the Federal Trade Commission, a division specifically tasked with protecting the public:

Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission is closed due to the government shutdown....

...Consumers cannot file complaints or register for Do Not Call."

Without answers, the public is now left vulnerable to threats regarding money they may not owe, or for which the alleged contracts may no longer be valid.

Certain creditors -- such as payday loan companies -- have a specific date by which the debt must be collected. Since the shutdown, however, it appears some companies may be attempting to collect debts which are no longer considered "owed". Depending upon the state in which a resident resides, these entities have between three and six years to file court proceedings on the debt; yet, some consumers claim these alleged debts trace back as far as 10 years.

While many are left feeling overwhelmed by the situation, there are ways to avoid becoming a victim to one of these alleged scams.

It is important for consumers to know their rights in the state in which they reside, and to know what debts are actually owed. Know the statute of limitations regarding debt collection efforts, and research the companies who call by using traditional search engines such as Google or Yahoo. Reverse phone look-ups are also available using search engines or sites such as AnyWho.com. Additionally, companies such as CreditKarma.com offer free credit reports for consumers to check their history to determine if the alleged debt is even owed, and Consumer Affairs offer tips, resources, and updates regarding current known scams and how to protect yourself from being victimized.

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