Debt, especially credit card debt, has become a big problem in America. So it's probably not surprising that many Americans occasionally get contacted by a debt collection agent. Making matters worse, sometimes we're contacted about a debt we allegedly owe when we don't even owe it.

Ignore debt collectors, whether you owe money or not, at your own peril. You may end up with lawsuits on your hands, a garnishe on your wages, or a lien on your house. And you don't want that, right? Be an informed consumer -- ideally before bad things such as debt collection agents show up at your door. You can (and should) learn all about the credit industry in our Credit Center -- and trust me, it's actually really interesting.

Here are some tips on how to deal with debt collectors, from our friends at the Federal Trade Commission (read all the tips):

  • "If you have an attorney, the debt collector must contact the attorney, rather than you. If you do not have an attorney, a collector may contact other people, but only to find out where you live, what your phone number is, and where you work. Collectors usually are prohibited from contacting such third parties more than once. In most cases, the collector may not tell anyone other than you and your attorney that you owe money."

  • "Within five days after you are first contacted, the collector must send you a written notice telling you the amount of money you owe, the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money, and what action to take if you believe you do not owe the money."

  • "A collector may not contact you if, within 30 days after you receive the written notice, you send the collection agency a letter stating you do not owe money. However, a collector can renew collection activities if you are sent proof of the debt, such as a copy of a bill for the amount owed."

  • "Report any problems you have with a debt collector to your state Attorney General's office and the Federal Trade Commission. Many states have their own debt collection laws, and your Attorney General's office can help you determine your rights."

You should also find out the statute of limitations for debt in your state. Your debt's age may permit the matter to be dropped. And don't give out more information than you need to, to the debt collector. Finally, know that you can sue the debt collector if you think you've been wronged.

Do spend a few minutes in our Credit Center, learning more about this stuff. It can save you a lot of headaches in the future.

And if you're suddenly intrigued by the idea of investing in these firms that collect unpaid debts, go for it. Here are a few such firms -- the first one has been recommended in our Motley Fool Hidden Gems newsletter:

  • Portfolio Recovery Associates (NASDAQ:PRAA)
  • Encore Capital Group (NASDAQ:ECPG)
  • Asta Funding (NASDAQ:ASFI)
  • Asset Acceptance Capital (NASDAQ:AACC)
  • First City Financial (NASDAQ:FCFC)

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.