By Stephanie Moore

Many of us will, at one time or another, get behind on a payment or two -- or three. It happens. But stretch your luck too far and the creditor turns the collection agency loose on you. If being stressed about paying your bills wasn't bad enough, hang on, it's about to get much worse.

Debt collection companies are in business to make a profit -- off you. The more they recoup for the company that hired them, the better. There are usually incentives (read bonuses) for the individuals who can squeeze blood out of the proverbial turnip, so they can get pretty ugly with debtors. Hammering you with phone calls, threats of litigation, abusive and profane language, character assassination, and outright lies, are just a few tricks in the debt collector's arsenal. Even though these practices are illegal, they are so common most people don't report the abuses.

There ought to be a law, you say?

There is one. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) (15 UCS 1601) regulates debt collection companies and collection attorneys but -- and this is important -- it does not regulate the creditor, the person or company to whom you owe the money. And like all laws, the FDCPA is broken regularly, which means it won't always stop collectors from harassing you, but it does give you the right to strike back when collectors cross the line.

What debts are covered?
Personal, family, and household debts are covered under the Act. This includes money owed for the purchase of an automobile, for medical care, and for charge accounts.

What's allowed
A collector may contact you in person, by mail, telephone, telegram, or fax. However, a debt collector may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree. A debt collector also may not contact you at work if the collector knows that your employer disapproves of such contacts.

May a debt collector contact anyone else about your debt?
If you have an attorney, the debt collector must contact the attorney rather than you. If you do not have an attorney, a collector may contact other people -- but only to find out where you live, what your phone number is, and where you work. Collectors usually are prohibited from contacting such third parties more than once. In most cases, the collector may not tell anyone other than you and your attorney that you owe money.

What must the debt collector tell you about the debt?
Within five days after you are first contacted, the collector must send you a written notice telling you the amount you owe; the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money; and what action to take if you believe you do not owe the money.

Next: What's not allowed