Plenty of Alaskans have debts that have been turned over to collection agencies. Figures compiled by the National Consumer Law Center show the rate of debts in collections in Alaska is 32% compared to a national average of 30%.

Dealing with a collection agency can be a frustrating and intimidating process. But consumers have rights they may not be aware of.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, debt collectors can't:

•     Call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

•     Contact you at work if you've told them verbally or in writing that your employer doesn't allow you to take calls

•     Harass or abuse you or anyone else they contact about you

•     Lie about the amount you owe

•     Use deceptive methods to collect a debt from you

•     Give false credit information about you to anyone, including a credit reporting agency

•     Use a fake company name

The Alaska Public Interest Research Group has advice about what to do if you are contacted by a collection agency.

AKPIRG Executive Director Veri di Suvero said the most important thing to do right away is ask the caller to mail you a written copy of what you owe that includes details about who is trying to collect the debt.

"I need the clarification of the debt that you claim that I owe," di Suvero said. "I need the name of your debt collection agency. I need to make sure that you are real, so give me your address. Give me all of these different things."

It's possible that someone does owe money but the people trying to collect it are scammers. It's also possible a legitimate agency could have the amount wrong or they could be trying to collect on a bill that's already been paid.

It's important to write down details about who you've talked to, what was said and the time and day the call was received, di Suvero said.

But what if the debt is legitimate and you don't know how you are going to repay it? According to di Suvero, people need financial advice from a credit counselor or other expert to develop a plan to pay it back. She said credit companies will often take those efforts into account.

"It's really important that they see this act of good faith because otherwise they are more likely to slap on fees and fines to charge an interest rate that makes your cost much higher, or again, take you to court or mandatory arbitration proceedings," di Suvero said.

The most important thing is that people shouldn't be afraid to ask for help, di Suvero said.

"There's just so much individual shame placed on this issue that it is really hard for people to get help when they need it," di Suvero said.

AKPIRG and the Municipality of Anchorage have teamed up to offer a free public training session to educate people about how to protect themselves from abusive debt collection practices. The session is Thursday, Aug. 15, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at the Mountain View Library, located at 120 Bragaw St. in Anchorage.

The session will include a presenter from the Alaska Court System to describe resources for people who are sued over a debt and also a pro bono attorney with Alaska Legal Services Corporation to discuss legal issues surrounding debt collection.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used incorrect pronouns to refer to di Suvero.

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