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Have you ever experienced that gut-wrenching fear that a secret you shared with someone you thought you could trust would be leaked? Or maybe it actually happened and you felt betrayed, embarrassed or ashamed.

While it’s sometimes tough to know who you can trust with confidential information, one thing you shouldn’t have to worry about is that a debt collector will discuss your money troubles with your friends, neighbors or co-workers. That’s because a federal law, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, limits when collectors can contact others about your debt, as well as what they can say about it to others.

But that doesn’t mean your secrets are totally safe, either. If you have debts in collection — and some 77 million Americans do, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute — you’ll want to know what these firms can and cannot do when it comes to reaching out to others about your debt.

Under the law, a third-party collector (someone who regularly collects debts for others; not the original creditor) can only contact others to locate you (the debtor) or to try to find out your residential or work address and/or phone number. If they do, the collector is not allowed to tell others that you owe money or even to provide the name of the company they are calling from, unless asked. Once they’ve found you, contact with third parties must stop.

Another provision in the law protects you from unwanted calls at work. If a debt collector calls you at your place of employment, you can tell them that you can’t take calls there, and those calls must stop.

What happens if a collector breaks the law? You can either file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or talk with a consumer law attorney who represents consumers in these kinds of cases. The attorney may be willing to represent you at no cost, because if the bill collector has broken the law, it will likely have to pay your attorney’s fees. You may also be entitled to damages if you are successful.

Of course if you are dealing with a debt collection scammer, all bets are off. Collection con artists don’t care if they follow the law or not; they are usually based overseas, out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement, and they’ll say anything to anyone to try to scare you into paying them, whether or not the debt is legit. In fact, a so-called collector that shares the details of your debt with others may be a tip-off that they are not legitimate. Here are nine signs you are dealing with a debt collection scammer.

The Ball’s In Your Court

If you have delinquent debt, don’t just wait and worry. Be proactive. Check your credit reports to see whether a collection agency is reporting it. You can check your credit reports for free once a year. While paying a collection account won’t likely alter your credit score in the short run, it can prevent other problems such as a debt collection lawsuit. For that reason, you may want to consider whether it makes sense to reach out to the collection agency to resolve your debt. (But before you pay an old debt, read this.)

If it’s past due but not with a collection agency yet, you may want to talk with the creditor about paying or settling it before it gets turned over to collections. That’s because one collection account can drop your credit scores by 50 – 100 or more points.

In addition to checking your free annual credit reports, it’s a good idea to check and monitor your credit scores, which you can do for free with Credit.com.

And one more warning: the law does allow collectors to contact your spouse, so trying to hide debt problems from your husband or wife may not work.

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