Consumer Alert: If you’re in debt, you’re a target. Here’s one tactic to watch out for

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – There are few things in life more stressful than drowning in debt. Now consider the fact that debtors are vulnerable to all kinds of scams. I wanted to know if that was the case when a letter landed in my mailbox. It had someone else’s name on it and my address. So, I had to get answers.

First, I carefully examined the letter. It looks official. It says “pending lien enforcements” and warns that the letter is for the addressee only –“ violation punishable by fine or imprisonment.” While my name wasn’t on the letter, the fact that it contained my address was deeply troubling. Was there a lien on my house? After all, if the government places a lien on the debtor and his house, the lien remains attached to the house. The letter inside is threatening. In bold text it says, “Your property will be seized. Final demand for payment.” Immediately I noticed signs that this letter may not be what it appeared.

For example, the heading reads, “Tax Processing Unit, Internal Processing Service, Monroe County County.” The writer mistakenly repeated the word county. The first sentence has a grammatical error. It reads, “The federal tax authorities *has* attempted.” The writer should have written *have* attempted. So, I called them, and the man who answered identified himself as working for “Tax Group.”

The generic name was another red flag.

“I got a letter about a lien enforcement on my house,” I told him. He said that a third-party marketing company had sent me the letter. Really? Was this company using threatening letters as a marketing strategy? He said he was referring me to a senior tax specialist. Then that fellow claimed the letter was a lien notice. I then informed him that his colleague had said the letter was from a marketing company.

After several minutes, the “senior tax specialist” finally acknowledged that he worked for a private firm tax resolution firm and had ties to neither a debt collector nor the government.

“So here’s my question,” I told him. “It sounds like you all went through public records and you sent a very scary letter to people who owed money so that you could find clientele. Is that right?” He then defended his right to use public records to get clients.

And that’s when I told him this.

“I’m a consumer investigator, and I’m investigating whether or not this is a scam.”

He again defended his right to the use of public records. So, I did more digging. I discovered the person the letter was meant for does have a great deal of tax debt. But they sent it to the wrong address. As for the tax resolution firm, it’s a real business that searches public records and sends scary official looking letters. And while their methods may seem deceptive, it appears to be legal.

This story is proof that you should take nothing at face value. Do your research. And if you’re in debt, there are valuable. free and low-cost resources like Consumer Credit Counseling of Rochester.