Collectors say the complaints are a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of communications a year they have with debtors, and should not be used as a lever to tighten regulation. To protect its interests, ACA International, formerly the American Collectors Association, opened a full-time Washington lobbying office this month.
Another collectors group, the National Association of Retail Collection Attorneys, has hired a leading public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, and started pressing its arguments on Capitol Hill.
"When changes are made by Congress or regulators, we want to make sure there are no unintended consequences," the association’s president, Robert G. Markoff, said.
Mr. Markoff’s group represents an increasingly prominent part of the debt industry: law firms that are hired by creditors or that buy delinquent accounts outright. If phone calls to the indebted person do not produce the desired results, the lawyers sue, and may seek to have paychecks garnished.
Association membership has jumped 44 percent in the last five years, to 820 law firms. It had operated in the shadow of ACA International, which is based in Minneapolis and has 5,500 members, but lately it has sought to draw differences.
"We’re trying to create an awareness that attorneys collect debt ethically," Mr. Markoff, whose practice is in Chicago, said. "To lump us in with a high school graduate who has not received similar training is not fair."
In a recent interview, Ira F. Leibsker, another Chicago collections lawyer and past president of the association, acknowledged that the notion of a friendly debt collector had its limits. "We’re trying to take people’s money from them. Let’s be honest," he said.
He cited some points rarely mentioned about the industry, like the opportunities it offers. "I have 180 employees feeding 180 families," he said. "Half if not more are single mothers, some of whom have only a high school education." His employees make $12 to $20 an hour phoning debtors.
The lawyers’ group, like ACA International, is practicing outreach of a sort. Mr. Markoff is writing a column on President Lincoln, describing an inability to pay his own bills and his time as a collection lawyer.
Mr. Markoff also believes in self-empowerment. "I’m proud to be a debt collector," he said. "I tell everyone within earshot and with my head held high."
One recent morning he was in a courtroom in Chicago, waiting for dozens of debtors to show up in response to summonses. Only one appeared: Joslyn Savage, born in 1964, married with three children.
As soon as Ms. Savage checked in with the court, Mr. Markoff took her into the hallway and sat her down on a bench.
"This is kind of old, isn’t it?" he said, holding a folder with a six-year-old bill for $2,644 from a Citibank credit card. "We’d like to see if we can settle it."
He asked questions rapidly and politely: Employed? No. Own real estate? Not in her name. Bank accounts? No. Expensive jewelry? She twisted her wedding ring. He reassured her that he was not going to take it.
Ms. Savage said her only income was her unemployment check. Mr. Markoff set up a payment plan of $100 a month and went away, satisfied with his new customer. She sat there a while longer, seeming more resigned than anything else.
"I used the money; I didn’t pay; I feel I have to pay," she said. "What can I do?"