Debt collectors are a lot like vultures. Once they sense that you're in trouble, they'll keep picking at you until there's nothing left. They shamelessly (and often illegally) harass consumers into paying their debt, ruining hundreds of innocent lives in the process. For consumers, debt is bad enough, but the unrelentingly aggressive and demeaning phone calls from company collectors or third-party agencies can make you feel like you've got a serious stalker. Anyone who's ever been in that position will tell you it's somewhere they never want to be again in their lives.

SEE: What You Need To Know About Bankruptcy

If you're in debt and the birds of prey are circling, there are a few things you can do to beat them off. You have rights as an American citizen - rights that debt collection agencies cannot infringe upon no matter how much money you owe. The next time the collectors come calling, use these techniques to keep them at bay.

Get Everything on Paper
A debt collector can't legally pursue you unless he or she gives you a written statement outlining your debt within five days of contacting you. You don't have to say anything to him or her over the phone until that letter arrives. If the letter doesn't arrive within five days, you could have grounds to sue him or her for harassment.

Write a Cease and Desist Letter
In-house collection agents for banks and credit card companies are forthcoming about their identities. Third party collectors who buy your debt from your credit issuer are not. They'll try to keep their identities a secret, because they know that the Fair Debt Collection Act gives you the power to demand, in writing, that they stop calling you. Force him or her to give up his or her name and address. Once he or she does, write him or her multiple certified letters demanding that he or she cease calling you. It's important to make sure all your letters are certified, because otherwise the collectors will try to deny that they received the letters.

Know Your Rights
Never, ever believe anything a debt collector tells you. Multiple collection agencies have been slammed by the FTC recently for deceiving consumers into believing that they owed money when they really didn't. Since debtors' rights vary by state, it's up to you to do your research and keep yourself informed. A working knowledge of your rights is your best defense against a collection agency's lies.

SEE: Are You Living Too Close To The Edge?

Negotiate Your Debt Down
Debt collectors are aggressive about pursuing their money partly because they're desperate themselves. They need your debt if they're going to stay afloat in this economy, and that need makes many of them open to compromise. Don't accept any of their payment plan offers when they call. Instead, offer to pay 10% to 15% of what you owe. Tell them you can't afford any more, and stand firm if they don't accept. If you haggle with them every step of the way, they're likely to let you off for a fraction of your total debt. Just remember to keep the next rule in mind when making any agreement with your collection agency.

Record Everything
As soon as your debt collector starts calling, record everything he or she says. When he or she calls, inform him or her that he or she is being monitored and start taping. When you make an agreement with him or her, get it in writing and keep the letter on file. Think of it as gathering evidence. If the collection agency ever crosses the line, you'll have a strong enough case to take the agency to court. Sometimes, even a small clerical error is enough to get your debt completely erased. You can only win the battle if you've got enough bullets.

Contact an Attorney
If a collection agency refuses to stop overstepping its bounds to contact you, then you should strongly consider contacting an attorney. If you've been recording evidence of after-hours calls and verbal harassment, you could be able to file a lawsuit. Who knows, you might even be able to clear your debts through a settlement.

SEE: Saving Your Home From Foreclosure

The Bottom Line
Debt collection agencies walk all over consumers because they think they can get away with it. Consumer inaction has led them to believe that they can infringe on a debtor's rights through intimidation and deception. Don't let yourself become another victim of illegal collection practices. If the vultures are after your debt, use these tips to shoot them down. The chances of getting some or all of your debt forgiven are much higher than you'd believe.

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