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If you’ve fallen behind on your monthly bills, you’re probably all too familiar with debt collector phone calls. Debt collection agencies set up agreements with your creditors to try to collect from you what you owe. Some agencies may charge creditors a flat fee or may keep a percentage of whatever money they collect. Other agencies may simply buy the debt from your creditor, so that you effectively owe the collection agency rather than your original creditor.

Simply put, debt collectors have a financial stake in your debt and want you to pay it. Some debt collectors act appropriately within the law, but because of their personal interest in your loan, others resort to illegal actions while attempting to collect money from you. Commonly, they may harass, threaten or lie to you, all of which are prohibited by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

If you’re receiving calls from debt collectors, your first action should be to verify the debt. Make sure you actually owe the debt in question. If you don’t, notify the debt collection agency as soon as possible and do not pay a debt you don’t actually owe.

Then find out if your rights are being violated.By law, collection agents may not harass you, such as by using profanity, publishing your name or threatening you in any way. Repeated or continuous phone calls, or calls during unreasonable hours, also constitute harassment. Debt collectors cannot lie to you; they cannot misrepresent themselves or their employers, claim that you committed a crime or otherwise deceive you. And they cannot take unfair financial actions against you: unless your original contract states otherwise, the debt collector cannot charge you interest or fees.

If you believe your rights have been violated, there are several actions you can take against the debt collector and collection agency. First and foremost, report the violations to the Federal Trade Commission and to your state’s Attorney General.

You also have the right to sue the debt collector. If you’ve suffered damages such as lost wages because of the collector’s actions, a lawsuit can help reimburse you for your losses. If you cannot prove monetary damages, you’re still eligible for an award of up to $1,000 in court. If you win your court case, you can be compensated for court and lawyer fees.

Keep in mind that a debt collector’s illegal actions do not affect your debt. Even if you sue and win, you are still legally responsible for paying your debt in full. But no matter how much you owe or to whom, you still have rights.

Mickey Colon writes for America’s Debt help Organization, serving the public with information on your financial well-being.

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