Some people are unable to tell the difference between a legitimate collection agency and a con artist. While the specifics differ, generally they have the same theme: you owe money and you better pay up. There are some red flags to listen for, warning signs that indicate the collection call is probably not from a legitimate agency.

Mitsy Jost and her husband Gene have received some disturbing calls over the last several months.

“This message is meant to contact you, regarding a tax fraud against your name. I’m calling regarding an enforcement actions (sic) executed by US Treasury,” said one of the messages. “Ignoring this will be unintentional attempt to avoid initial appearance before a magistrate, judge or a grand jury for a federal criminal offense.”

The Josts were concerned saying some people may take the calls seriously.

“They did have some key words which would scare people from sleeping. I’m afraid some people would have a stroke,” said Gene Jost.

“They also mention the IRS and federal magistrate court. These words that kind of stand out that make you nervous,” said Mitsy Jost.

While the messages to the Josts didn’t specifically say why they would be arrested if they didn’t pay up, the scammers never gave up. The Josts say the calls started coming in last July, several from the same man. They knew not to respond.

Scammers call people of all ages. Fredy Sosa said last year a so-called debt collector threatened his family. Sosa said the heavily accented man claiming he was an officer of the court was not very polite.

“He said that if I don’t pay him, my kids would be living on the dark side,” said Sosa.

He said that call was frightening. Jerry Tipton with the Better Business Bureau has tips on how to determine whether it’s a real collection agency on the phone or a scammer.

“The caller demands payment today. A real collection agency is required to give you some time, scammers don’t. They will tell you are being served with a lawsuit immediately. Of course, this is not true. Scammers won’t accept various forms of payment. Most collection agencies will. A real agency will tell you exactly what you owe and the details. A scammer will not,” he said.

“I have been hearing people’s sad stories all my life that they gave them money and never saw it again,” said Gene Jost.

That’s what worries the Josts – too many people are gullible and the scammers become rich.

“Some of them become multi-millionaires by people sending them a check. ‘If you send us a $3,000 check, you get the grand prize of $2 million. Boy that sounds good,” said Gene Jost with a laugh. “Too good to be true.”

These scammers claim they’re with all sorts of organizations: the IRS, the U.S. Marshal’s Office, your local sheriff’s office and of course, debt collectors. No matter how scary it sounds, never give them personal infomration, banking or credit card numbers. Don’t go to Walmart and buy a MoneyPak card.

If you do owe money, you’ll get a written notice with information on how to respond and you’ll be given time to respond. Sometimes, those notices can be tricks as well.