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As job losses skyrocket, so does our debt. Americans carry a record $2.5 trillion in debt right now, which amounts to big business for debt collectors. Dateline NBC’s Chris Hansen investigated the debt collection business and what he found was startling. (Watch the video for his full report)

The strong-arm tactics that have become somewhat of an accepted standard in the debt collection game don’t have to be that way, says John Ulzheimer. The consumer has rights – in this case, backed by a law known as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (pdf). Just mentioning this name to a harassing collector will likely get them to change their ways or leave you alone entirely, he says.

The worst thing to do, if you’re being repeatedly approached by a collector, is to ignore them. According to Ulzheimer, in addition to mentioning the law that protects you, you should document and record every piece of correspondence with the collector. If they are making harassing phone calls or calling too late, make note of it. The law gives you 30 days to leverage your rights including making the collector acknowledge your debt in writing and prove that it isn’t “zombie debt” (old debt that is protected by the statute of limitations in your state).

In addition, many attorneys specialize in going after the debt collection agencies that use the consumer’s lack of knowledge to intimidate them. It will be easier to file a lawsuit, if one is warranted, if you have records of all the documents, conversations and – most importantly – proof that your credit report or credit scores have been damaged.

In fairness, not all debt collectors are manipulative. But in tough economic times, as in many businesses, we see the bad apples coming out of the woodwork. Better to stay aware than become a victim.