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Published: Sunday, 12/6/2009

Stop debt harassment

DEBT collectors are growing more aggressive according to a recent investigation, but there are ways for economically hard-pressed consumers to fight back.

Researchers at the Scripps Howard Survey Research Center at Ohio University report that half of Americans they asked said they had received letters from debt collectors, and nearly half said they'd been called concerning a debt. Considering the state of the U.S. economy, that's not surprising.

What was surprising, however, was that 40 percent of respondents said they or their families have been threatened, harassed, or called early in the morning or late at night over outstanding debts. In addition, more than a third said the debt collectors had the amount owed wrong, and nearly 40 percent said they were contacted over a debt they believed they didn't owe at all.

One can only assume that collection agencies, a growth industry in a down economy, have been emboldened by the prospect of cashing in on the $60 billion resold-debt market and believe they can get away with strong-arming consumers. They have been prohibited by federal law for more than 30 years from making threats, harassing debtors, or calling incessantly or at inappropriate times, and making false statements, but the law can only be enforced if federal officials are alerted to abuses.

The first thing people threatened or harassed by debt collectors should do is to get the collector to confirm, in writing, the details of the debt. Then, regardless of whether they actually owe money, a complaint can be filed with the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Response Center either by mail, telephone, or online at ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

In an ideal world, creditors recognizing the unique economic conditions that currently exist might have offered discounts to borrowers instead of selling bad debts to collection agencies for pennies on the dollars. But failing to find the credit industry has a heart, people are responsible for paying their legitimate debts - even in bad times.

No one, however, should have to put up with the underhanded tactics of sleazy debt collectors who act like mafia enforcers.

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