By Dean Kaplan, CEO and President, The Kaplan Group

It could happen to anyone. Maybe you had a car accident or an unexpected illness. Perhaps you got laid off right after you made a big purchase. Whatever happened, suddenly you have unpaid bills.

What’s even worse, people are calling you about those overdue bills.

Dealing with a debt collector can be frightening, but the more you know about debt collectors, the better prepared you’ll be.

  1. They have rules

When pursuing individuals, debt collectors have to follow the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). This law includes rules such as when and where they can and cannot call you. It’s important that you keep a log of when the debt collector calls, to make sure they are not breaking the law. Five days after the first phone call, the collector has to send you a written notice that includes how much you owe, who you owe it to and what you can do if you think the claim is false.

It’s important to remember that the FDCPA only applies to collection agents. It does not apply to your brother when you owe him money or to the local store where you bounced a check.

  • It’s not personal

Unlike the local store where you bounced a check, a collection agency isn’t mad at you. Collection agents don’t take your debt personally and are not out to get you. If you can prove that you don’t owe the money, the agents are more than happy to stop calling you. We would rather spend our time pursuing a debt that we can collect.

Keep in mind, even if a debt collector stops calling you or sends you information that you no longer owe the debt, you’ll still want to follow up with the credit bureaus to make sure the debt has been removed from your credit report.

  • You can negotiate

Collection agents are open to negotiation. Once you receive written confirmation of the amount you owe and you agree that you owe it, consider offering a deal if you truly can’t afford to pay the whole amount. You might ask to pay 15% of the total amount owed. The collector will probably counteroffer. You may wind up paying as little as 50% of the amount you originally owed if you can prove to the collector that you can’t afford more.

Make sure to get any deal agreement in writing. Keep a copy of your payment so you can prove you paid. People make mistakes. If the collection agency doesn’t properly record the debt as satisfied in their system, someone else may end up trying to collect at a later date. If you have a written agreement and a copy of your payment, you can make this second collection effort go away immediately.

  • They have a deadline

Your debt cannot follow you forever. Different states have different statutes of limitations on debt. The timeline may differ depending on the kind of debt you owe. If you make a payment of even $1, the timeline starts over. If someone is trying to collect an old debt from you, make sure you research the provisions in your state before making any payment.

  • They don’t like to be ignored

No one wants to get a call from a debt collector. It’s embarrassing and stressful. But, putting your head in the sand and pretending the call didn’t happen isn’t going to make the calls stop. If you ignore the calls and notices, you can get sued and end up paying much more than what you could have negotiated. So, take the call.

Get all the information you can and then request all the information in writing. If you owe the money and can pay it, you should probably go ahead and pay. Unpaid debt is bad for your credit rating and your karma. After all, you did get the product or service you requested, and you promised to pay for it.

If you are facing huge debt, especially credit card debt, you may want to consider contacting a nonprofit debt consolidation organization. These organizations offer credit counseling and can help you reduce your payments and interest.

As with debt collectors though, there are bad operators. Make sure to do your research.

The most important thing to know about debt collectors is that just like you, they have a job to do. There are good, reputable collection agencies and less than reputable agencies. If you know your rights and do not allow yourself to get flustered, you can take a lot of the stress out of the situation.

Dean Kaplan is president of The Kaplan Group, a commercial collection agency specializing in large claims and international transactions. He has 35 years of manufacturing, international business leadership and customer service experience. Today, he provides business planning, training and consultation to a variety of global companies.