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If you're in debt and behind in your payments, chances are you're all too familiar with the bombardment of phone calls by your debt collectors wanting to know when you'll be paying your bills. But you need to be aware that you have rights, too. And here's what you need to know.

What is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act?

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects you, the consumer, when you owe someone else money. The debt collector may contact you by visiting you, through the mail, by telephone, or by facsimile. But the Act limits the hours the collector may contact you. He cannot contact you at unreasonable places or times. They are not allowed to call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

Debt collectors are disallowed to tell anyone that you owe money. They can only contact your friends and relatives once to find out where you live and work, but they can contact your attorney at any time. And believe it or not, you actually have a right to stop the debt collector from getting ahold of you. All you have to do is write the agency a letter asking him to stop.

If a debt collector has broken the law, you can file a lawsuit against him or her in the state the crime was committed–or in federal court. You must do this within 12 months of the date the crime was committed.

What are some illegal debt collection tactics?
• Incorrect statements. If a "debt collector" tells you or implies that he is an attorney or working for the government or tells you that you have committed a crime, they are breaking the law. Further, he cannot tell you that you owe more or less than you actually do and cannot tell you that your situation has been handed over to an attorney of his, if in fact that has not happened.
• Unfair tactics. A debt collector cannot deposit or cash a post-dated check before the date listed on the check, cannot force you to accept a collect call, make you pay for any methods of contacting you, or making you pay amounts that are incredibly more than the actual amount you owe.
• A debt collector cannot harass you. A debt collector cannot make threats to you or your family. He cannot use obscene language toward you and cannot publish your name as someone who refuses to pay a debt.