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7 tips on what to do if you're being harassed by a debt collector

What can you do if a debt collector is after you? We have advice from someone in the industry.

When you're in debt, your phone becomes the enemy. Every time it rings, your stomach lurches. Is it yet another bill collector? Will they get nasty? Happily, the Federal Trade Commission has done a lot in recent years to try and protect consumers from humiliation or harassment at the hands of debt collectors. But still, you never know what to expect when one calls. So, we decided to turn to someone in the industry to find out. Jack Brown is president of Gulf Coast Collection Bureau in Sarasota, Fla.

"The perception of debt collectors is that there's a bunch of pit bulls out there who will beat up consumers, talk to them rudely, yell at them, lie to them -- do whatever they can to get a dollar out of them today," says Brown. "In any industry there are bad apples, bad actors, and there's 99 percent of the folks out there doing the right thing. They are out there complying with the laws and they are working. But there is that 1 percent out there that may cause some issues. If you ever deal with that type of agency go to AskDoctorDebt.com, get some information on what you rights are, what you can expect during a collection call, how you can get the calls to stop if they're not treating you in the right away. ACAInternational.org, that's our international trade association for debt collectors and you can also submit a complaint against an agency through that site if you have an issue."

Brown says the first step consumers should take when contacted by a debt collector is to make sure you call them back because they will continue to call and try to reach the consumer.

"If you don't address the account, it's not going to get resolved," he says.

Here are 7 easy tips on what to do if you are being illegally harassed by a debt collector

1. You are Not Alone. According to the CFPB, 30 million consumers are contacted by a debt collector.

2. Know Your Rights. Consumers have important rights under federal and state law, and deserve to be treated respectfully. By law, consumers cannot be harassed, threatened or be subjected to profanity and vulgar language.

3. Communicate. Avoiding a letter or call won't make the debt disappear. The reason for the contact cannot be resolved without the ability to communicate; whether it's to pay an owed debt, verify an alleged debt or confirm that the debt collector has reached the wrong person.

4. Identify. Debt collectors cannot call anonymously nor present themselves as being a representative of a government entity. When contacted, collectors must identify themselves and the name of the collection agency they represent.

5. Notify the Collection Agency if you Dispute the Validity of the Debt. By law, the collector must inform you of your right to dispute the debt and provide written verification if you dispute it in writing.

6. Seek to Work Out Complaints with the Collection Agency. Third-party debt collectors sincerely want to work with consumers to resolve complaints. According to the Council of Better Business Bureaus, in 2012 collection agencies resolved 86 percent of the consumer complaints received.

7. Protect Your Identity. Do not provide sensitive personal information (e.g., Social Security number, credit card numbers, and bank accounts) until certain of the authenticity of the debt and the person seeking to collect. Check out whether the collector is a legitimate agency by using the Internet to search the company. Monitor accounts and immediately report any suspicious purchases to your bank or credit card provider. Consumers should also monitor their credit report. If you believe your identity has been stolen, contact your local police department and visit www.ftc.gov/idtheft for information on what you should do.

About the author

Jack Brown is president of Gulf Coast Collection Bureau in Sarasota, Fla.

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