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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — When 40-year-old Jackie Rivera fell behind in her credit card payments three years ago, she didn't expect to be deluged with calls from a collection agency, but that's exactly what happened. "I was getting calls around the clock on my home phone, cell phone and work phone," the retail store manager said. "I felt harassed and humiliated."

After joining Debtors Anonymous, Rivera learned some of their tactics were below the belt. "I started standing up for myself to these collection agents," Rivera told MainStreet. "I owe them money but taking care of myself emotionally and physically is more important so that I can continue to earn and eventually pay off my debts."

Rivera still owes $4,000 but has so far paid off $11,000.

"I'm proud of the progress I've made," Rivera said.

Among the most common mistakes a debtor can make is to take collection agency calls personally.

"Collectors can be argumentative, mean, deceptive and downright vicious and will do anything to collect a debt," said Jeremy Heck, a consumer law attorney based in Columbus, Ohio. "There is no reason to take these tactics personally or to even engage in such a conversation with a collector. Just hang up."

Another common mistake is entering into a settlement for less than the full balance without getting the terms of the agreement in writing and providing collection agents with banking information for a one time payment.

"All too often I see collectors claim this was simply a partial payment made on the full balance," Heck told MainStreet.

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The borrower can manage debt collectors by setting boundaries.

"Debt collectors are not an enemy of consumers," said Matt Logan, president of the California Association of Collectors. "We are advocates for protecting consumer rights while balancing the ability to recover rightfully owed obligations that maintain America's credit-based economy."

Under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), a debt collector may not contact a consumer at times known to be inconvenient to the consumer, which includes contact before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m.

"Consumers often feel powerless against a debt collection machine but with knowledge comes power. Debtors must advocate for themselves and this means that they should know their rights and exercise them," said Antoinette Davis, a Seattle-based bankruptcy attorney and legal analyst.

While there are overarching collection laws that protect consumers nationwide, many states also have their own set of laws that offer additional protection to consumers.

"The burden of proof is on the consumer to prove that the debt collector violated the law so keep notes and document every communication you have with the debt collection agency," Davis said.

Contact the state attorney general's office to learn about available protections. In addition, the FDCPA outlines several important items that consumers can use to discern a legitimate attempt to recover a debt:

  • 1. A debt collector may not communicate, in connection with the collection of the debt, with anyone other than the consumer in question or his or her attorney or the consumer's spouse unless prohibited by state law.
  • 2. A debt collector must disclose its identity to the consumer and notify the consumer that the communication is from a debt collector and that any information obtained will be used to effect collection of the debt.
  • 3. A debt collector may not make false representations and may not threaten to take action with a lawsuit, jail or wage garnishment against a consumer if it doesn't actually intend to seek such action.
  • 4. A debt collector must notify consumers of their right to dispute the validity of the debt in part or in full with the debt collector. The notice is required to be sent by debt collectors within five days of the initial communication with the consumer and the consumer has 30-days to request verification of the debt from the debt collector.
  • 5. If the consumer disputes the validity of the debt within the 30-day time period, a debt collector must cease collection of the debt until it provides verification of the debt.

--Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet