She was accused of check fraud, and theft by deception. She was told that she owed $4,526, and was facing daily late fees. She was warned that her wages could be garnished or her property could be seized. The menacing phone calls and emails began in April and starting piling up quickly.
But Susan Marquardt, of Chicago, had never heard of the company calling and writing her: Advance Cash Services.
“It was horrible,” Marquardt, 51, said. “They just kept calling and leaving really harassing messages.”
Fortunately, the internet had heard of them. Marquardt did a quick search and found mountains of complaints about the firm allegedly harassing consumers over debts they say they don’t owe. My own search found complaints dating back several years. For example, Washington state officials first warned consumers about ACS in 2011, but renewed its warning late last year.
Phantom Debt Collection
The tactic is sometimes called “phantom debt collection” and it continues because it works. Consumers, intimidated or scared by the threat of legal action, pay up. In Marquardt’s case, she was told she could avoid legal trouble if she paid $700 immediately. According to a complaint she filed with the Illinois Attorney General’s office, she was threatened with seizure and sale of “movable” assets and wage garnishment.
“Phantom debt collection is one of the most egregious scams I’ve seen in years,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. “Simply entering your personal information on a payday loan site can easily come back to haunt you. There is no way of knowing where this information will end up, and unfortunately it’s usually in the hands of scam artists.”
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That could be how Marquardt’s trouble began. Earlier this year, she took out a small online payday loan, but paid it back within a few weeks. She’s had nothing but trouble ever since. First, someone used her banking details to write fraudulent checks. Then, the phone started ringing off the hook with this fake debt incident.
Read More: Understanding Your Debt Collection Rights
What Happened Next
Attempts to get a comment from ACS for this story were unsuccessful, but reporting on it did land me my own menacing debt collection note.
When I called the number listed for ACS at the Better Business Bureau in West Florida — where ACS has been hit with more than 1,600 complaints — a man who answered the phone said he did not wish to comment. (I was unable to confirm that the man was connected to ACS, or that the phone number was correct). An email sent to what appeared to be ACS’s main office was returned as undeliverable.
But an email sent to the address that contacted Marquardt yielded a surprising “comment” for the story.
“This is (Advance Cash Services), it is a parent company which owns and operates more than 350 parental payday loan websites,” it read. “You applied from one of our website and you never bothered to pay this debt, so the creditor wants to know your intention about this matter of yours that what would you like to do. And now with the late fees and tax, Rate of Interest the initial amount goes up to $935.76.”
I was asked to provide a date when I would pay the amount.
Read More: The Truth About Payday Loans
“We are talking about the loan amount that you took with the company ACS -Advance Cash Services (A Parental Pay Day Advance Company), using an e-mail address (Bob@XXX.net) and your SSN. The money was successfully deposited into your bank account. Kindly provide us the date on which you can come up with $935.76 so that we can send you the Settlement Agreement which you need to fill, sign and send us back in order to freeze down your case.”
The letter went on to warn me that if the case file was “downloaded…we won’t be able to help you out.”
Why Phantom Debt Collection Works
To be clear, I have not applied for a payday loan recently, or ever. But consumers who have done so likely are facing at least some financial trouble, so they make good targets for intimidation. Also, it’s fairly easy to create doubt in a consumer’s mind. Marquart keeps good financial records, but still there was a part of her that might have fallen for the scam.
“I knew I had paid [the payday loan] off, but 5% of me thought, ‘Well maybe…’” she said. “Two years ago I got a divorce and I thought, maybe it’s my ex, but it wasn’t.”
That’s why phantom debt scam calls work; if they can create just a little doubt in a consumer’s mind, criminals have a chance to exploit that weakness and make a killing.
“I was kind of mad. I thought, ‘how dare they!’” she said. “I pay all my bills and whatever and when they come up saying I owe them. That’s why I filled out the complaint.”
And that’s why Marquart agreed to describe her experience to Credit.com.
“If I help just one other person who might fall for this kind of thing, it’s worth it,” she said.
We’ve talked before about the things every consumer should do when they receive a debt collection call – here’s a quick list of seven questions to ask – but asking one question would probably help you sniff out most phantom collectors: “What is your license number?” Most states require collectors to be registered. Attempt to verify the license before doing anything else, and you’ll be more likely to scare off most scammers.
Remember, debt collection accounts can damage your credit. If a fraudulent account appears on your credit reports, be sure to dispute the error with the credit bureau in question.