If you are behind and struggling to pay your bills and debt collectors are calling, you have plenty of company. Almost 15 percent of Americans are now being called by debt collectors.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to collect from you. This federal law covers collection agencies, lawyers who collect debts on a regular basis, and companies that buy delinquent debts. The FDCPA covers personal, family, and household debts, including credit card debt, auto and mortgage loans, and medical bills. It does not cover business debts. State laws may provide additional protection.

Here are some questions and answers about your rights under the FDCPA.

Can a debt collector contact me any time or any place?

No. A debt collector may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, such as before 8 am or after 9 pm, unless you agree to it. Collectors may not contact you at work if they are told (orally or in writing) that you are not allowed to get calls there. Debt collectors must stop contacting you if you ask them to stop in writing (known as a cease communication letter).

Can a debt collector contact someone else about my debt?

A debt collector may not tell your family, friends, co-workers, or neighbors about your debt or that they are trying to collect a debt from you. Debt collectors are only allowed to call your neighbors to determine where you are and only once. If you have an attorney, the debt collector must contact the attorney, rather than you.

Can a debt collector threaten to have me arrested?

No. A debt collector may not threaten a debtor with being arrested for not paying a debt, which is one of the most common illegal tactics used by debt collectors. In general, a debt collector may not lie when trying to collect a debt. For example, debt collectors may not falsely claim that they are attorneys or government representatives, falsely claim that you have committed a crime, or falsely represent that they work for a credit reporting company. In addition, debt collectors may not threaten legal action if the threat is not intended to be carried out.

What other practices are off limits for debt collectors?

A debt collector may not harass, oppress, or abuse you. For example, they may not use threats of violence or harm, use obscene or profane language, or repeatedly use the phone to annoy you. In addition, a debt collector may not lie about how much money you owe or that your wages will be garnished, unless they are permitted by law to garnish your wages and intend to do so. Debt collectors may not contact you without identifying themselves and their employer.

Can I dispute a debt?

The debt collector must tell you the amount of the debt, the name of the current creditor and that you have 30 days to dispute the debt. If you do not believe that you owe the debt, the debt you owe is a different amount, or if you do not recognize the creditor, you can ask the debt collector for a written notice of the debt, called a “validation notice” containing information regarding your right to dispute the debt.

Can I make the debt collector stop calling me?

You can write a letter to the debt collector telling it not to contact you again. You should send that letter by certified mail and request a return receipt. If the debt collector has a fax number, send the letter by both fax and by mail. Telling the debt collector not to contact you should stop the phone calls, but it won’t stop the collection efforts. Once the collector receives your letter, they may contact you one more time to tell you there will be no further contact or to let you know that they intend to take a specific action, like filing a lawsuit.

The most effective way to stop all collection harassment is to file a bankruptcy petition. Upon filing bankruptcy, an automatic stay comes into effect that stops all efforts to collect a debt, including phone calls, letters and lawsuits. Debt collectors that violate the automatic stay are subject to serious financial and other sanctions.

Even prior to filing, help from an experienced bankruptcy attorney can be especially valuable. If you are represented by an attorney, collectors must communicate through the attorney and not contact you directly. If you are being hounded by debt collectors for what feels like unmanageable debt, contact a knowledgeable bankruptcy lawyer to discuss your options and get help.