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How to spot a scammer

Unknown caller scam

Have you been contacted by someone claiming to be from a government agency who says you’ve won a cash prize? Has someone claiming to be a federal government employee called and threatened you with jail time or a lawsuit if you don’t pay a debt? If so, there’s a good chance it’s a scam. Criminals and con artists use scams to target unsuspecting people who have access to money. Scams can target you on the phone, through the mail, on the internet, and especially over email. They can also take place in person, at home, or at a business.

Scammers may pretend to be government officials to get you to send money with the promise of an even larger prize. Don’t fall for it. Federal government agencies and federal employees will not ask you to send money to collect prizes.  

Other scammers may falsely claim you owe a debt to the federal government and may threaten you with jail time if you don’t pay them. This could be a scam, but it could also be a call from a debt collector using practices that violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Make sure you investigate any alleged debt to find out if it’s legitimate. 

Here are several types of scams you may encounter, as well as ways to protect yourself and others from fraud and scams.

Lottery or sweepstakes

Someone claiming to be a federal government employee may call to tell you that you’ve won a prize through a lottery or sweepstakes. They may even say that they’re calling from the nonexistent "Consumer Protection Bureau." This is not us. We are the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB. Some scammers may claim to be with the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection. Others may claim to work for the CFPB or FTC, but neither of these agencies calls consumers to alert them of winning a lottery or sweepstakes.

If this happens to you:

  • Don’t give out your passwords, account or credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers.
  • Never make an up-front payment for a promised prize. If you’re told that you have to pay fees or taxes to receive a prize, it’s a scam.
  • Don’t fall for someone telling you that you need to pay immediately. For example, they may ask you to wire the money, send it by courier, or put the money on a prepaid card and send it to them. Once you send the money, it’s likely gone for good.
  • Don’t cash a check from someone that asks you to return a portion of the check to them. When the check bounces, you’ll have lost the money that you sent.  
  • Ask yourself why someone is trying so hard to give you a "great deal." If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

Fake debt

In addition to phone calls, scammers may also send you letters in the mail claiming that they are with a law firm or federal government agency like the Federal Trade Commission or the IRS. They may threaten to arrest you or file a lawsuit against you if you don’t pay the debt they claim you owe. If this happens to you:

  • Don’t give out any personal or financial information. They could use it to commit identity theft. Ask the caller for information including their name and their company’s name, address, and business license number. If they refuse, it’s likely a scam. 
  • Look out for phone numbers you’re not familiar with. Some scammers will use technology to hide where they’re really calling from—the FTC advises consumers to be alert for caller ID spoofing .
  • Hang up and call the company the debt is with to get more information if you think the debt is real. It is against the law for a debt collector to use unfair, deceptive or abusive practices in an attempt to collect a debt from you. Our sample letters can help if you’re experiencing common problems that may come up with debt collectors. 

If you suspect a scam, there are a few important steps you should take right away

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