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Struggling to pay off a mountain of debt can be a very stressful experience. It gets even worse when debt collectors enter the picture. The phone calls, the hounding, the past-due notices that flood your mailbox — they’re enough to make you silence your phone and ignore your mail. But burying your head in the sand won’t make the bills or the collectors go away.

What can alleviate some of that stress is knowing your rights when it comes to debt collection and exercising them as quickly as possible.

Get Written Notice

First and foremost, a debt collector can’t just call and tell you that you owe a debt. They must provide written notice within five days of contacting you, outlining the amount of money you owe, the name of the creditor and any other pertinent details. This notice also must explain what actions to take if you believe you do not owe the money.

Troy Doucet, an attorney focused on debtor rights, said the letter must also explain that a consumer has the right to challenge the validity of the debt within 30 days of receiving the notice and that not challenging it does not necessarily mean the consumer agrees it is valid.

“Also, the law requires that any communication, whether written or on the phone, includes a statement that they are a debt collector and the purpose of the communication is to collect on a debt,” he said.

It’s also important to remember that the obligation to validate the debt is on the collector, not the consumer. As such, if you do challenge the debt, the collector must verify the debt and notify you in writing before they renew collection calls.

You Can Say ‘Stop Calling Me!’

You can tell collectors to stop calling you — and you may want to, particularly if you believe the debt is erroneous. They have to stop contacting you if you send a letter requesting that they do so, and if you believe you do not owe the money, you should also say that in your letter. Be aware that a legitimate debt will not go away simply because the collection calls stop. You could still be sued by the debt collector or your original creditor for the amount that you owe.

Know the Statute of Limitations

Debt collectors are regulated by state laws, and every state has a different statute of limitations that limits how long a creditor or debt collector can attempt to collect a debt. Typically, the statute of limitations starts when you miss your first payment with the original creditor. It does not start when the account was placed for collection. You can review a state-by-state map of these statutes of limitation here.

Remember the very first person who must stand up for your debt collection rights is you. So don’t let a debt collector intimidate you or harass you with unfair and illegal debt collection tactics. If you need specific assistance and advice, contact an attorney.

Know What’s In Your Credit Report

Regularly keeping track of your debts on your credit report can help immensely if you are ever contacted by a debt collector, and can help you spot early on any bogus or fraudulent debts. You can can check your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days on Credit.com. In general, you can fix your credit by disputing any errors on your credit report, identifying credit score killers and coming up with a game plan to address those issues — before the debt collectors come knocking.

More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:

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