- Get verification. Within five days of first contacting you, a debt collector must provide written verification of the name of the creditor, the amount of the debt, and steps you can take to dispute the claim. If you do owe the money, find a credit counselor through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to advise you on your options.
- Call them on their game. Debt collectors initially have the right to contact you at home or at work between 8 A.M. and 9 P.M. But you have the right to make them stop. If you tell a debt collector (orally or in writing) that your employer doesn't allow such calls at work, those calls must cease. You can also mail a written request to stop the home phone calls (by law a collection agency must supply its contact info to you). Write a letter telling the agency to stop calling; send it certified mail with a return receipt, so you have evidence. Once the collector receives your letter, it may contact you only to tell you it won't contact you anymore (yes, it's a bit convoluted) or to say it is taking a specific action, like suing you.
- Tune out the threats. No debt collector has the right to garnish your wages or bank account to settle a debt. Only a court of law has that right; until a debt collector sues you, any threats of garnishment are simply scare tactics.
- Report harassment. Because the Federal Trade Commission enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you can file complaints at FTC.gov. But many states have their own debt collection laws, so contact your state attorney general to learn about your state's protections and the steps you can take to fight off an unscrupulous collector. You can find a link to your state attorney general at NAAG.org.
Suze Orman's most recent book is her 2009 Action Plan: Keeping Your Money Safe & Sound (Spiegel & Grau).