Whether you knew it was coming or not, your heart sinks when you get the call.

You can feel your palms sweat when the person on the other side of the line informs you that a debt you owe is in collections — gulp. If you find yourself in this situation, take a deep breath. Although you always want to avoid having debt in collections, this situation isn’t always as bad as it might seem.

First off, you have rights. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is a series of consumer protections that prevent agencies from bullying you into paying a debt. Here’s what you need to know about your debt collection rights, and how to prevent a debt collection company (or scam artist) from intimidating you.

IS THE DEBT COLLECTION AGENCY LEGIT?

Within five days of contacting you, the collector must send you a written validation notice that contains key information about your debt. They must tell you what you owe, who you owe, and next steps if the debt isn’t yours. Bruce McClary, vice president of communications at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and a former debt collector recommends you do your homework. “There are a lot of scammers out there that are trying to get money out of people. And these scammers are posing as debt collectors,” McClary warns.

To check if you’re working with a legitimate debt collection agency, and not a scammer, McClary says you should verify the debt collection agency is licensed to operate in your state. “If they’re not, that’s a big red flag that you’re dealing with somebody who may not be on the up and up,” he says.

Next, it’s worth checking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau complaint database to see if anyone has filed complaints against the agency that contacted you.

WHAT A DEBT COLLECTION AGENCY CAN AND CAN’T DO

After confirming the debt belongs to you and the agency is legit, you need know how a debt collection agency is legally allowed operate. Debt collectors or agencies can’t harass you, lie to you about the process, or engage in unfair practices such as threats, profanity or deception. They can’t collect interest or fees unless permitted by law in your state, and they can’t deposit a post-dated check early. If an agency takes any of these actions, you could have grounds for a lawsuit.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU HAVE DEBT IN COLLECTIONS

The FDCPA regulates how and how often a debt collector may contact you. Here are a few ground rules:

  • They cannot contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. without your consent

  • They cannot contact you at work if you tell them they can't

  • They can contact you via calls, letters, emails or text messages

  • You can request via letter that a debt collector stop contacting you altogether

  • A debt collector can’t discuss your debt with anyone but you or your spouse, although they can call others to learn things like where you work.

While you have the right to tell a debt collector to stop calling you, McClary recommends against it. “The less they know, the more likely they are to escalate the account collection activity to the next level. In some cases that could involve taking legal action against you to recover the debt.”

McClary believes it’s a good idea to maintain some form of contact once you have determined they are a legitimate agency and that the debt belongs to you.

HOW TO PAY THAT DEBT

When it comes to paying the debt, McClary says it’s important to be realistic.

“Don’t feel like you have to commit to something you know you can’t do. In fact, the worst thing you can do when talking to a debt collector is to commit to something you know you can’t do just to end the conversation and make them go away,” McClary says.

He warns that making promises you can’t keep could worsen the situation, “The next time you hear back from them after you break the commitment that you made, the conversation is not going to be as polite as before,” McClary notes.

If you need help working through the debt collection process, McClary recommends working with a non-profit credit counselor, like NFCC, as a great first step toward finding a solution. “A lot of the non-profit credit counseling agencies that are part of the NFCC are staffed with credit counselors who have a background in lending and debt collection, just as I have, and can provide a lot of really good advice based on real world experience,” he says.

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