With not much good in recent economic forecasts, credit card debts are headed skyward as quickly as foreclosures, bankruptcy filings and stress levels.

With not much good in recent economic forecasts, credit card debts are headed skyward as quickly as foreclosures, bankruptcy filings and stress levels.

Sadly, in a struggling economy, one industry doing better than most is debt collection. For their part, collection agencies provide a vital service for companies who must collect unpaid bills. However, a select few take a less than ethical approach in their quest to collect debt from consumers.

Historically, collection agencies have gained a reputation for acting less than professionally, harassing consumers with threatening phone calls and other low ball tactics so loathed they ranked fourth place on the Oregon attorney general's top 10 complaint list last year, says consumer information coordinator Jan Margosian. "And I was pretty sure they were going to rank second this year, as many calls as we receive."

In a nutshell, thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act of 1991, debt collectors are required to adhere to a basic set of standards, treating consumers in a fair manner and without resorting to unfair tactics.

First and foremost, collection agencies have to provide proof of a debt, says Medford credit counselor Greg Jones. It's not unheard of for consumers, especially seniors, to pay a debt they don't owe, simply to get an unscrupulous debt collector off their back.

"The first questions to ask are, 'Do you think it's your debt?' and 'Do you want to try to talk to that collector to see if you can work out an arrangement?" Jones says.

In addition to validating a debt with identifying information such as social security numbers or account information, collectors are required to disclose to whom the debt was originally owed.

Upon initial contact, consumers have 30 days to dispute a debt in writing, after which a collector must discontinue collection activities until a debt has been validated. Keep in mind, however, that debts owed to an original creditor, such as a hospital, do not fall under Fair Debt Collection guidelines intended for collection agencies.

When a debt is validated, and phone calls and letters ensue, phone calls cannot be made before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., cannot be obscene or harassing and cannot involve threats that an agency does not intend, or cannot, follow through on.

To put a stop to collection attempts by phone, debt collectors can be ordered, in writing, to stop calling. By law, however, refusing phone contact will not erase the debt and collection agencies are permitted to call one final time to inform the debtor of the manner in which they will proceed forward, says Dean Fortmiller, director of education for Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Southern Oregon.

After verifying a debt, review the options presented for repayment of a debt and make an educated decision. By the time contact is made by a collection agency, a debt has likely gone unpaid for three months or longer, notes Fortmiller. Be educated about consumer rights under laws for fair debt collections, but make decisions towards actively resolving the issue, whether paying, disputing or settling.

"Know where you stand in terms of your credit and know your consumer rights, because if you don't know where you stand, how can you make an intelligent decision as to where to move forward?" says Fortmiller. "Having knowledge gives you more power to act responsibly."