By Andrew Zashin*

This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.

At the end of July, the Urban Institute released a report on delinquent debt in America, and the figures were rather astonishing. Using 2013 data obtained from TransUnion, the institute sought to study the nature of American consumer (non-mortgage) debt. What they found was that nearly 12 million adults, or 5.3 percent of Americans, have past due debt. And, on average, consumers owe $2,258 just to become current on that debt.

While those numbers may not seem too awful, keep in mind that a payment must generally be at least 30 days – and often 60 days – late before the creditor ever reports it to a credit bureau. Even worse is that an astounding 35 percent of Americans have debt in collections, with an average debt amount of $5,178. Data for the Cleveland metropolitan area is similar, with 5.9 percent of individuals having past due debt, and 34.9 percent in collections for an average amount of $4.207.

What if you in danger of becoming – or already are – one of these? What should you do? What should you know? Well, first, you will want to educate yourself as to your rights and obligations so that you will not fall victim to unlawful collection behavior. Some important pieces of legislation in this area are the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act sets out some basic rules that debt collectors must follow. For example, debt collectors may not telephone outside of the hours of 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. local time. They must cease communications, other than initiating a lawsuit, if the debtor sends written notice that the debtor refuses to pay the debt and/or wants no further communication. They may not telephone repeatedly with the intention of annoying or harassing the debtor, misrepresent their identity (like saying they are police) in an effort to collect, threaten arrest or legal action that is not actually being considered, or seek a repayment amount that is not supported by the original agreement made between the debtor and the creditor. Debt collectors may not be abusive or use profane language, may not contact a debtor known to be represented in the matter by an attorney, or divulge information about a debt to a third party.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act, on the other hand, controls what the credit reporting bureaus – including TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax – may do. Under this law, these agencies most provide debtors with the information contained in his or her files, as well as the steps taken by the agency to verify the information. Per a subsequent amendment to this law, consumers are entitled to obtain one free credit report each year from each agency in order to keep tabs on and check the accuracy of the information compiled in his or her file. This act also limits how long negative information, such as late payments, collection actions and bankruptcies, will stay on a debtor’s record, and handles how other types of debts and transactions, such as medical bills, tenant rental histories, and check-writing habits may be handled and reported.

Of course, while these laws are intended to make sure consumers are treated fairly by creditors and debt collectors, this does not mean the debt goes away, and it is extremely difficult to get out of paying a debt entirely. Though it may sound obvious, it is imperative to come up with a plan to manage the debt. The most extreme measures might include debt consolidation or perhaps even bankruptcy. However, for most individuals, some good old-fashioned budgeting, maybe even some financial counseling, and a little time are all that is needed to get back on track.

*Andrew Zashin writes about law for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is a co-managing partner with Zashin & Rich, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.