From constant phone calls to threats, it's hard to know what debt collectors are and aren't allowed to do.
If you've been victim to intimidation because of unpaid bills, you're not alone: About 77 million people in the United States have debts in collection, and one in three Americans has been contacted by debt collectors or creditors in the last year.
The good news?
There are clear laws on the books regarding what debt collectors are and aren't allowed to do, financial counselor Justin Chidester explained.
Here's what to know — and how you can protect yourself from unsavory practices.
What collectors are not allowed to do
Thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, collectors are "not allowed to make collection calls ... if you've given them a written notice, such as a cease and desist letter, stating that you refuse to pay the debt or that you no longer wish to be communicated to," Chidester said.
In addition, they aren't allowed to contact your family or friends.
Legally, Chidester said the only third party they're allowed to contact is your spouse or attorney.
Collectors also cannot continue to talk to you after you've told them you have an attorney.
Finally, they're not allowed to use obscene or profane language or threaten you with imprisonment or violence. Debt collectors have no legal right to take your property — only a court of law can do that.
What collectors are allowed to do
Wondering how the debt man got your number in the first place?
Unfortunately, those hired by collections agencies are permitted to use social media to find your phone number. If you have your number listed on your Facebook account, take it down, and make sure your profile includes tight security settings.
Collectors can also purchase your phone number legally. If you've ever given your phone number to a bank, grocery store, or any business that then sold your number to a listing company, debt collectors will be able to buy lists with your number, Chidester said.
Collectors can legally contact you at work, at least until you or your employer tells them to stop. They're generally allowed to call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.
What you can do
If a collector is breaking these rules and harassing you incessantly — or if the debt they are describing or your identity is recorded incorrectly — you have recourse.
Just contact the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau directly.
The CFPB allows you to select "debt collection" from a variety of financial products and services when you file a complaint. From there, you just describe your complaint and attach any documents to support your case. Most cases are supposed to be finished within 60 days, according to the agency.
Alternatively, the FTC also allows you to file a complaint online and even has an online customer service chat available on weekdays to answer technical questions you may have about filing.
Some good news: The CFPB has recently proposed new rules that would impose more regulations on what debt collectors can and can't do.
Even if you think you know what debt the collector is calling about, you have the right to ask them the name of the original creditor and how much you owe. The collection agency is also required to reveal who they are.