Consumers in West Virginia who at one time obtained payday loans over the Internet -- and even those who never borrowed money at all --have been getting threatening phone calls from alleged debt collectors.

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw says the debt collectors are actually scam artists. The "debts," he says, are not legitimate.

Internet payday loans are short-term loans or cash advances, usually for 14 days, made over the Internet via interactive web sites and secured by an agreement authorizing debits of the loan and all fees owed from the consumer's checking account. These loans typically charge interest rates ranging from 600-800 APR and are unlawful in West Virginia.

The scam artists, who speak English with a foreign accent, call themselves "U.S. National Bank," "Federal Investigation Bureau," "United Legal Processing" and numerous other phony names. They refuse to disclose real names and addresses and are believed to be operating "off the grid" from homes, automobiles, or from off shore locations or foreign countries, including India. Since the scammers have kept themselves purposely well hidden, McGraw says no law enforcement agencies have succeeded in locating or shutting them down.

The scammers typically pose as law enforcement officers, investigators, lawyers, and bankers and threaten consumers that they will be arrested for "bank fraud" or other fictitious crimes unless money is wired immediately. They simultaneously scare and confuse consumers by using meaningless legalese gobbledygook phrases such as, "We are downloading warrants against you" or "We are filing an affidavit against you." Consumers who don't immediately fall for the scam are warned, "Only God can help you now."

The scammers almost always call consumers at work several times a day, and tell their supervisors, "Your employee has committed fraud and is about to be arrested." Such threats have proven unsettling even to the most savvy consumers and employers who suspect the calls are fraudulent.

"Ordinarily my office protects consumers from fraudulent activities by seeking injunctions in court. But legal action cannot be taken until the scam artists can be located," McGraw said. "Even then, it is unlikely that the persons behind the fraudulent calls and extortionist threats would obey a court order. In this case, the consumer's best defense is to be armed with the knowledge of the scam so that all demands for money can be resisted, despite the false but scary threats of arrest."


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