Collections agencies have always haunted daily life. Centuries ago, people unable to pay what someone claimed they owed ended up in debtors' prison – even if they were sick.

Today in the U.S. we rely on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and the Federal Trade Commission to protect private individuals and enforce legal limits on the debt collection industry. 

Before you shrug and say this has nothing to do with you, know that over the last decade, 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies were consistently due to medical bills, and the vast majority of filers had health insurance.

The FDCPA rules cover all personal, family and household debts, including medical bills, and knowing your rights is essential when the debt collector calls. 

  1. If They Try To Track You Down – Section 804

    Debt collectors are not permitted to reveal verbally or through any other means – mail markings or car signs, for example – that they're debt collectors to anyone else but you. If you have an attorney to represent you, collectors must stop their search for you and limit their communications to your attorney.

  2. If They Try To Contact and Contact and Contact – Section 805

    Debt collectors cannot call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. They aren't allowed to contact you at your place of employment or speak to anyone other than you about the debt, unless you formally designate someone – such as your attorney – as your representative.

    Debt collectors are limited to communicating with your attorney, consumer reporting agencies, the creditor, the creditor's attorney, and the debt collector's attorney.

    You have the right to send a certified letter with return receipt notifying collection agencies that no representative is to contact you again or even that you have no intention of paying. Collectors can answer with a letter detailing their course of action but are now barred from harassing you.

  3. If They Try To Scare You – Section 806

    Debt collectors are not allowed to threaten, harass or verbally abuse you in any way. They're not permitted to publish "deadbeat lists" or advertise the sale of your debt to coerce payment. If they do, they've broken the law, and you can take them to court.

    It won't erase your debt, but if you win, the collection agency may have to pay damages and court and legal fees.

  4. If They Try To Fool or Deceive You – Section 807

    Debt collectors aren't allowed to use fake badges or uniforms. They can't invoke the law, threaten you with criminal charges, or even imply verbally or in writing that you committed a crime. They aren't allowed to misrepresent the amount owed, and they certainly aren't allowed to use fraudulent "government" documents. 

    Know, too, that at first contact with you, representatives of collection agencies must identify themselves and alert you either verbally or in writing that they are debt collectors. Law does not permit them to present themselves as anything other than what they are, so if they try it, they've broken the law.

  5. If They Try To Alter Payments or Terms – Section 808

    Debt collectors cannot attempt to collect amounts in excess of the original debt. This includes "fees", collect calls or any other expenses they supposedly incurred during their collection efforts.

    They can't run to the bank with a postdated check and cash it early, and they're barred from seizing your property as repayment.

    If they send you a postcard – remember, it's open for anyone to read – or even use a return address other than their own on any correspondence with you, they've broken the law.

  6. If They Try To Hurry You – Section 809

    Both you and debt collectors have certain time constraints and deadlines that you must meet:

    • If they didn't do so at first contact, within 5 days of it, debt collectors must provide written notice to you specifying the amount owed, the current creditor – usually now a collection agency – and a 30-day period for you to act.
    • Within that 30-day period, you must respond; if you don't, you'll be held liable for the debt. You can either make arrangements to pay or dispute the debt in entirety or in part. You can also demand verification of the debt as well as the original creditor's name and address.
    • If you dispute the debt, collection agencies must cease all efforts to collect until they mail written verification in answer to your demands: the debt amount and details, the original creditor's name and address, or both.

    Note that once you have paid the debt, the collection agency must cease contacting you regarding that debt permanently.

  7. If They Try To Confuse You With Multiple Debts – Section 810

    Debt collectors must apply any money that you pay them to the debt you designate. If you acknowledged one debt but are disputing another, they can't apply money earmarked for the accepted debt to the disputed one. They don't choose repayment accounts. You do.

  8. If They Try To Take You To Court, Section 811 States That They Can

    Even if you dispute the debt, once debt collectors fulfill their legal obligations, they can take legal action against you in a judicial court.

    The court may correspond to where you live or where you incurred the initial debt, but you'll have no choice but to engage legal advisement.

    Be sure you understand that if you lose the dispute, the court may order you to pay the debt and issue a judgment or a wage garnishment order to collect payments directly from any income you receive until you've paid the full amount.

  9. Protect Yourself

    Third-party debt collection is big business. According to the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, debt collection agencies recovered $55.2 billion in total debt, and earned close to $10.4 billion in commissions and fees in the process.

    A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report released late last year highlighted "debt collection as a top complaint for older Americans," especially mentioning collectors "hounding about medical debt, attempting to collect on debts of deceased family members, and illegally threatening to garnish federal benefits."

  10. Document Everything

    Keep copies of all medical bills, insurance explanations of benefits and relevant correspondence.

    If a debt collection agency makes contact, demand written communication, contact your attorney and assemble every document associated with the charge. 

    Experts recommend communicating only through your attorney or through official, written letters sent by certified mail with return receipt – proof that the debt collector received it.

  11. Get It Detailed in Writing

    Whether you dispute the charge, decide to negotiate a discounted payment or arrange a repayment plan, detail everything in writing. If you negotiate a resolution, ensure it is detailed in a written document signed by a collections representative who has authority to approve the arrangement. Keep a copy, and be sure to keep your promises.

Debt collection woes don't make recuperating from an illness or surgery any easier, but – much like a persistent medical condition – they won't go away unless treated.