These days, more and more people report getting "robo-dialed" by debt collectors looking for people with similar names, similar phone listings or similar addresses.
It's annoying, irritating and — when a collection call jolts you awake late at night — sometimes downright frightening.
Take Ted Gibson, a retired government economist in Sacramento, Calif. The phone directory lists him as "T. Gibson," which means he's frequently called by collectors looking for folks with similar initials.
Although he says he and his wife pay off their bills, do not run up credit card charges and have clean credit histories, "We receive five to six calls a week from various collection outfits" for other Gibsons whose first names start with T. Many of these other Gibsons appear to have multiple outstanding debts, Gibson says, "So there are a least a dozen different bill collectors hounding us night and day."
Federal officials say debt collection calls — including those to the wrong person — are increasing. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission logged 140,000 complaints about debt collectors, everything from calling the wrong person to leaving threatening messages.
In some cases, the erroneous calls are simple cases of mistaken identity. Others may be legitimate attempts by debt collectors trolling through phone listings trying to find a match.
Or they could be fraud, attempts to wrestle money from financially vulnerable victims.
Debt collection fraud has "always been there … but it seems like it's hot right now," said Joanne McNabb, chief of the California Office of Privacy Protection. "People may be more susceptible to a debt collection scam because — in this economy — they have debts. Scammers are taking advantage of people's concerns."
Officials admit there's no easy way to stop mistaken debtor calls, but you can take some measures to protect yourself.
First, don't hang up. Ask for the names of the caller and company — and for written verification of the debt. (It could be something you've forgotten.)
"If they're making threats or asking for personal information, it's a sign they're a scam," McNabb said.
Some collectors try to intimidate consumers into paying debts they don't owe. Don't fall for it, federal officials say.
By law, debt collection callers must send you written confirmation within five days that states the creditor's name, the amount owed and procedures for disputing the debt.
"If it's obviously not you … you can report that back in writing," said Tom Pahl, assistant director of the FTC's consumer protection branch. "The collector might take you out of their calling system."
Many people think they're safe from debt callers if they've signed up for the federal Do Not Call list. But that only bars telemarketers, not debt collectors, McNabb said.
If you're harassed by errant debt-collection calls, McNabb recommends calling your phone company and requesting that your number be unlisted.
Part of the problem, said the FTC's Pahl, is that many debt collectors buy bundled packages of old debts. If you've complained but they haven't "scrubbed" your number from their system, it can get passed along every time a new debt collector takes up the package.