The federal economy ministry received more than 2,000 complaints in the first nine months of 2019 from members of the public who had been taken in by fake debt collection agencies and defrauded of some €155,000.
An unknown number of others are almost certain to have been victims as well, but for one reason or another did not come forward.
Ministry spokesperson Etienne Mignolet explained how the scam works:
“You receive a telephone call or an email offering a night in a hotel or a trip. You pay no attention until you get a second call some months later, informing you that you never refused the offer and so you’re now committed. In order to close the file, they claim expenses of €400, €500 or €600, otherwise they will send a bailiff to seize your property.”
Faced with the threat of legal proceedings, the victims crack. One of them, Lyne Rodeberg, told the RTBF what happened next:
“Just at the moment I was making the payment, when I clicked on the ‘make payment’ button, the account details [of the recipient] came up, indicating ‘Turkey’. Then I said to myself, Lord it’s a scam, too late.”
The ministry explained the legal situation. Even a legitimate debt collection agency cannot simply call up demanding money. They first have to send an official letter by post, never a phone call or email. And the seizure of property in payment of a debt can only be ordered by bailiffs, not by a debt collector. In addition, failing to refuse an unsolicited offer does not imply you have accepted.
The practice, however, is increasing, of the simple reason that it appears to work. There were only four reports made in 2014, rising to 890 in 2018, and more than 2,000 by the end of this year.
The problem for the authorities is that the companies carrying out the scam are usually resident in other countries, making it difficult to bring a case against them. To help sort out the crooks from the legitimate debt collectors, the ministry has compiled a white list of properly registered agencies in Belgium, of which there are 375. There exists another grey list of suspect agencies, but that has not been made public.
Most importantly, do not pay what they are asking, unless the correct procedure has been followed – only a letter and no phone call or email contact – the agency has identified itself and it checks according to the white list.
If you have been defrauded in this way, notify your bank immediately to try to stop the payment. Make a declaration on the government’s reporting website, and then file a report at your local police station.