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We monitor our credit scores more closely than ever before. We are also more directly and immediately connected to those scores. This is a function of technology, of interconnectivity and usability of data. An update to your credit score is only a click away. We are all keenly aware of this, and thus the mere threat of a negative mark on our credit records is enough to scare us into paying bills we don’t owe. What this amounts to is technological theft, not through direct hacking and transfers of funds, but through intimidation based on lies. A friend of mine experienced this recently and, using only his smartphone, fought back.
My friend has dentures. He received a set of these that were paid for, in part, by Allcare Dental and Dentures. Some time later, the company abruptly closed its doors. Patients who were scheduled for treatment – patients who, in some cases, had prepaid for products and services – were not notified in any way. They were simply cut off and, to my knowledge, no provision was made to refund their money, except through the usual lengthy and cumbersome legal procedures that occur when a company collapses financially. My friend found out about the cancellation of his insurance while reading the paper. A dental blog summed up the problem thusly:
The company’s bare-bones alternate website says their doors are permanently closed. They said that they did not give patients any notice because both their computer network and phone system were abruptly shut down by the network provider.
Allcare shut down so abruptly that it seems inadequate provision was made for Allcare’s patients, the transfer of those patients’ health-care records, and continuity of patient and corporate financial records. Employees of the company were left with no recourse but to apologize in online discussion forums for what took place; they were left powerless.
Last week, my friend received a notice from a collections company, apparently misrepresenting itself as an arm of a major banking and credit card company. He was told he owed more than $900 for a bad debt relative to Allcare. When he investigated, he was told that his insurance claim was denied and therefore he owed the portion of the bill that his Allcare dental insurance was supposed to have paid.
My friend was certain he had paid the bill and that he had received no such notice from Allcare while the company was still a going concern. He spent the morning on the telephone, tracking down anyone he could find who could give him some insight into the issue. He also did a lot of Internet searching and, before he was done, he was filing a complaint with the state attorney general’s office. Using his smartphone, the Internet and common sense, he was able to detect both warning flags of a scam and catch the scammers in their own lies.
The telephone numbers for the collections agency didn’t match the company’s name. When he tried calling them, he got a menu tree that either disconnected him or simply relisted the menu’s useless options. Finding another phone number for the company by searching for its name and location, he then checked with the bank this collections company was supposed to represent. The bank had never heard of any such department.
Finding a “real” phone number for the collections company was easier than you might think. Searching for the data online, however, revealed multiple customers – some of them formerly covered by Allcare – who were having issues with the same company. In a few cases, patients who were owed money by the company for bills they prepaid (for services they never received, once Allcare went out of business) were being hounded by the collections firm. Figures of around $900 kept coming up; evidently, this was the amount the scam artists had determined was their optimum figure.
Angry now, my friend called the collections company and told them that, no, he did not owe the money and, no, he was not going to pay it. When the rude woman on the other end of the phone told him that Allcare’s records showed he was, in fact, responsible for the bill, he knew he had caught her. The collections firm couldn’t have records that did not exist, the unavailability of which had vexed patients and subsequent dental-care providers alike.
Further incriminating herself, the scam artist claimed her company had a policy of faxing notices but not mailing them. She claimed she couldn’t send my friend proof in writing that he owed the bill because she wasn’t “allowed” to do so. Finally, after absorbing a few minutes of my friend’s righteous indignation over the phone, she claimed she would “forward the information to Allcare’s attorneys” – attorneys who don’t exist, because the company is out of business and certainly won’t be paying any teams of litigators to go after customer accounts.
Obviously, the illegitimate “collection agency” in question is a boiler-room operation whose goal is to frighten people into paying bills they do not owe. Armed with a little customer information (information they surely acquired illegally, either through hacking and identity theft or by some other means), they are, essentially, bluffing. They tell a customer that he or she owes the money and that customer, fearful of being “sent to collections” and having a corresponding credit blot, sends the money to make the problem go away.
As savvy consumers in a technologically connected age, we cannot afford to be complacent. We also cannot afford to give in to fear, to intimidation tactics and to brazen lies. If you are told you owe money, especially for a long overdue debt, take the time to research the problem. Only armed with information can you fight scam artists and thieves.
Before battle is joined, you must understand what you do not know. It is not enough to know that you don’t understand.