The person on the other end could be a thief out to get your money by using scare tactics that could spook even the strongest and savviest of consumers.
Read this transcript of a conversation between a young local woman, Shakura Taylor, and a man who calls himself Jack Adams. It has all kinds of warning signs. Adams claims to work for a debt collection company called United Financial Crime Division and says the local consumer has an outstanding payday loan.
Taylor: I never had a payday loan.
Adams: Today...you need to make this payment today itself
Adams: Ma'am, the only method of payment is credit or debit card or checking account...That's the mode of payment I can accept today.
Taylor: What if I don't pay it?
Adams: Ma'am, you will be going to jail for sure, okay? This will happen with you for sure.
"I was very surprised. I was scared when he threatened my job. And he knew where my mother lived at," Taylor of Elkins Park, Pa. said.
Dov Sacks, an attorney for Community Legal Services, says there were red flags in that call.
"There is never a time a debt collector should threaten arrest or jail or anything related to a criminal proceeding," Sacks said.
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act also says a collector -
Cannot threaten to tell anyone else about your debt
Cannot call your place of work except in very, very limited circumstances
Must stop calling your workplace as soon as you ask him to stop
Cannot garnish, or threaten to garnish, your wages.
"It was beyond shocking," Taylor said.
It was especially shocking because the caller had Taylor's correct social security and bank account numbers.
But Sack's conclusion is what's most shocking about Taylor's case: "This caller was not a debt collector; my instinct is this is an outright scam, a case of fraud."
Experts say it's easy for con-artists to illegally buy personal information.
"And are hoping that by scaring them with threats, either by jail or calling their employer, that they'll get people to pay even though the person they're calling knows that they don't owe any money," Sacks said.
Attorney Generals in Colorado, Florida, and Kansas have issued warnings about this practice.
They say fraudsters use official-sounding names like United Financial Crime Division, Cyber Crime Division, Federal Fraud Investigations, National Check Restitution, and U.S. Justice Department/Payday Loan Division.
"It's important to stay calm because there really isn't anything that can be done against them if there isn't any debt that's owed," Sacks said.
Never make a payment on any supposed debt you don't actually owe.
Instead, file complaints with your state's attorney general.
And never give credit or debit card information to any debt collector because even so-called legitimate collectors may have rogue employees who set up automatic payment plans that continue to deduct unauthorized amounts.
Taylor, by the way, did not end up giving any money to that supposed debt collection company, United Financial Crime Division.