PhotoThe latest “legal authority collection scam” comes out of Illinois, where state attorney general Lisa Madigan issued a warning about a new scam wherein threatening emails, allegedly from Madigan's office, claim that the recipient owes money on a loan and better pay it off right now or face prosecution.

Madigan said that people who took out loans online are at particular risk of getting such a letter, because the personal information you provided at the time can easily end up in the hands of a fraudster.

Scams like these are sadly typical; scroll through the most recent “scam alerts” in our own archives and you'll find plenty of examples. The basic scheme is that you, the intended victim, get some type of communication — email, phone call, even an old-fashioned snail-mail letter — that boils down to “This is someone with actual legal power over you, claiming that you owe money; pay it right now or face consequences ranging from prison time to confiscation of your worldly assets.”

Variations on a theme

Variations include “This is your local sheriff or police department calling to say that you missed jury duty”; “This is either the IRS or your city or state revenue office saying you owe back taxes”; and also a “utility scam” variant which says “This is the electric company; pay us now or we'll shut off your power.”

What makes these come-ons sound plausible is that such messages genuinely exist: people do face fines or jail time for missing jury duty, ignoring traffic tickets, non-payment of taxes and similar things. And of course the utility company can cut you off if you go without payment too long.

Furthermore, even if you're the type to promptly and responsibly handle all your legal and financial obligations, there's still always the chance you'll be the victim of honest mistakes or bad luck: “I'd never deliberately ignore a jury duty notice — but what if mine got lost in the mail?” or “Of course I paid taxes on time but — uh oh. Could I have made a math error? Maybe I did underpay” or even “I owe no outstanding debts, but what if some data-entry clerk at the electric company or in the state attorney general's office made a typo, and now they think I do?”

And that's not even counting the ever-present chance “What if hackers stole my identity after breaching any one of the thousand or so databases with my personal confidential information on it somewhere?”

But Illinois Attorney General Madigan answered that question, at least for Illinois residents afraid she's out to get them: “Do not respond to anyone claiming to represent my office with demands for money or threatening prosecution. Instead, call our Consumer Fraud Bureau immediately at 1-800-243-0618.” (For out-of-state residents, the number to call is 312-814-3000.)

Madigan's advice is merely an Illinois-specific variant of a piece of anti-scam advice we're repeatedly given: anytime you get an unsolicited, unexpected message — whether the AG's office complaining about debts you had no idea you owed, or a subscription service (Netflix, for example) warning of problems you never noticed with your account — remember that, if you respond to these messages, do not use any contact information (or click on any links) they offer. Instead, get the contact information on your own.

Consider: if you got one of these fake warnings from Madigan, even if you did not read this article or any other warning of the threat, you can go online, find Illinois' official attorney general website in seconds, and see for yourself that Madigan's real contact information is wildly different from what your threatening message had to offer.

More things to consider: genuine legal (or legally sanctioned) fines, whether to the attorney general, electric company, your sheriff's office or anyone else, do not require untraceable payments—you can pay with a personal check, or at least an official money order, rather than be required to pay in cash, through a wire transfer or by handing over an anonymous pre-paid money card. Anyone demanding payment is such form is likely to be a fraud.

You can pay legitimate fines through the mail, or in person at the police station, county clerk's office or wherever; you're not required to meet somebody in (for example) a parking lot to hand over payment, nor send payment to a sketchy-looking PayPal account attached to a webmail address.

And finally, while legal fines do have deadlines — and it's even possible to hear “If you don't pay by a certain time, we'll cut off your power or send you to prison” — that deadline is never “Before sunset” or “within half an hour” or anything like that.

The scammers mention such short deadlines (and dire consequences) in hope of pressing your panic button: “Act now pay now right now, don't calm down and especially don't stop to think how very unlikely it is that you could be a scofflaw bad enough for the authorities to single you out, yet until five seconds ago you had no idea.”

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