As if being in debt isn’t bad enough — then add aggressive debt collectors to the equation, and that can be a pretty scary situation for anyone.

And if it’s happened to you, you aren’t alone.

Read more: 7 questions every debt collector should be able to answer

New report sheds light on ‘abusive’ debt collection industry

new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) revealed that more than one in four consumers felt threatened when contacted by debt collectors.

According to the report, consumers are not only getting calls way too often, but they also come at odd hours of the day and often involve threats of jail time and other potential consequences of not cooperating with the caller. On top of that, many consumers were contacted about debts they didn’t even owe — and when they asked the collectors to stop calling, that didn’t happen.

The discoveries made in the new report were drawn from the first-ever national survey of consumer experiences with debt collectors — which found that about one-third of consumers, or more than 70 million Americans, were contacted by a creditor or debt collector in the past 12 months.

People are most often contacted about medical and credit card debt, and the CFPB receives more complaints about debt collection than any other financial product or service.

And according to CFPB Director Rich Cordray, what the group found “casts light on troubling problems in the debt collection industry.”

The group also said it is “working to clean up abuses in this industry, and to see that all consumers are treated with fairness, decency, and respect.”

How to protect yourself from abusive debt collectors

Know your protections

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC):

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to collect from you.

Every collector must also send you a written “validation notice” telling you how much you owe within the first five days after contacting you.

The debt validation letter includes:

  • The amount owed.
  • The name of the creditor seeking payment.
  • A statement that the debt is assumed valid by the collector unless you dispute it within 30 days of first contact.
  • A statement that if you write to dispute the debt or request more information within 30 days, the debt collector will verify the debt by mail.
  • A statement that if you request information about the original creditor within 30 days, the collector must provide it.

Know your rights

According to the FTC, there are specific guidelines regarding how debt collectors can contact you:

  • A debt collector may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, such as before 8 in the morning or after 9 at night, unless you agree to it. And collectors may not contact you at work if they’re told (orally or in writing) that you’re not allowed to get calls there.
  • Debt collectors can contact you by phone, letter, email or text message to collect a debt, as long as they follow the rules and disclose that they are debt collectors. No matter how they communicate with you, it’s against the law for a debt collector to pretend to be someone else — like an attorney or government agency — or to harass, threaten or deceive you.

There are also rules concerning practices that are strictly “off limits” for debt collectors under the law:

Harassment.

  • Debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse you or any third parties they contact. For example, they may not:
  • use threats of violence or harm;
  • publish a list of names of people who refuse to pay their debts (but they can give this information to the credit reporting companies);
  • use obscene or profane language; or
  • repeatedly use the phone to annoy someone.

False statements.

  • Debt collectors may not lie when they are trying to collect a debt. For example, they may not:
  • falsely claim that they are attorneys or government representatives;
  • falsely claim that you have committed a crime;
  • falsely represent that they operate or work for a credit reporting company;
  • misrepresent the amount you owe;
  • indicate that papers they send you are legal forms if they aren’t; or
  • indicate that papers they send to you aren’t legal forms if they are.

Actions you can take

If you do not want a collector contacting you again, you have the right to send what’s called a drop dead letter. This letter will prevent the collector from contacting you again about a debt. Collectors can’t call at work once you say they can’t. (Though you can still be sued against a debt you legitimately owe.)

Remember this: If a collector is harassing you, you can shut down their harassment by certified mail using the drop dead letter. Mainly they want to create intimidation and fear, and if it happens to you, you can report them immediately to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau using this complaint form.

Things to keep in mind when dealing with debt collectors

If you legitimately owe a debt, you have specific rights under federal law. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when dealing with collectors:

  • Always record any calls from/to a collector. Both parties must consent to recording in California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
  • If your debt is outside the statute of limitations, you are not required to pay up. However, you should honor your obligations when you’re financially able to do so. The statute of limitations is 3 to 4 years on many debts in most states. Yet a negative mark resulting from a delinquent account can hang out on your credit for up to 7 years.
  • You have the right to tell a collector never to contact you again. Use a drop dead letter and send it via certified mail. You can still, however, be sued against the debt even after sending this letter.
  • If you legitimately owe money and wish to make a deal to pay, never give a collector your checking account number over the phone. Collectors routinely take more money than they say they’ll take. Pay only by money order.
  • Never pay one cent until you have an agreement in writing stating your payment(s) will resolve the debt in full.