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What to do when debt has you afraid to answer the phone

Thursday - 7/18/2013, 7:16am  ET

WASHINGTON - They call when you're having dinner. They call on Sunday morning.

So, what can you do when the debt collector starts harassing you?

"It can be very stressful as a consumer to be receiving collection calls," says Suzanne Martindale, an attorney with Consumer Union.

She advises making an arrangement to pay the debt.

But the Federal Trade Commission says many times these debt collection companies get it wrong.

They have the wrong person or they claim more is owed than there actually is.

"Make them prove to you that they have a basis for contacting you," Martindale says.

It's also important to engage the debt collector in writing so there's a paper trail. If a lawsuit shows up on the doorstep, be sure to respond. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is available to help online.

"If you think that you don't owe the debt or that it's a penny more than you think you owe, you can dispute it," Martindale says.

"Many local courts may have self help clinics or pro-bono lawyers who may assist you if you are repeatedly being harassed."

If it's a legitimately owed debt, for the most part, debt collectors will make arrangements for payment. But they do have the ability to take action too.

"They can garnish your wages, they can seize bank account assets, but there's a whole legal process that they have to do to get that authority,"Martindale says.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau can both steer consumers in the right direction.

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