Getting Abusive Debt Collectors Off Your Back

When bills go unpaid, it's a debt collector's job to get the money.

But a growing number of consumers are complaining that debt collectors are going too far.

The Federal Trade Commission, "A debt collector is someone who regularly collects debts owed to others. This includes collection agencies, lawyers who collect debts on a regular basis, and companies that buy delinquent debts and then try to collect them."

Federal law prohibits debt collectors from harassing or threatening you, and from using profanity.

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But, reports "Early Show" Consumer Correspondent Susan Koeppen, the number of grips about them went up as the economy tanked, and now, the FTC says it's fining debt collectors to the tune of millions of dollars for breaking the law, with more complaints coming in about the debt collection industry than any other -- 100,000last year alone.

And the number of lawsuits against them is up, too. More than 8,200 suits were filed against debt collection agencies last year, up 60 percent over the previous year.

One person who sued a collection agency is Monica Johnson, of Houston. She accused it of harassment.

She was at work when a debt collector called saying there was a warrant out for her arrest.

"So, at that moment, my heart is dropping," Johnson said.

Then, while her daughters were home alone, a debt collector left a message: "I'm over here by a truck stop finishing up my coffee, and then I'll be stopping by. … I'll see you in the next couple of hours or so."

"You're scared," Johnson says, "because how far is someone willing to go to get this money."

In reality, says Koeppen, there was no warrant and no one was stopping by.

They were simply scare tactics to get Johnson to pay.

The FTC's Joel Winston says, "That is entirely inappropriate and entirely illegal," adding that, "in too many cases, (debt collectors) go over the line."

Violators should know, he stresses, that, "If you use abusive tactics, you're running a serious risk that you're going to be prosecuted."

Such as debt collectors -- caught in the act - saying things such as, "You're a loser. Why don't you just jump in front of a train?" "You a f***ing thief, you know. "I'm gonna find you and you gonna be walking like a b***h on the side of the street." "I'm the guy who's gonna end your life. That's who I am"

Rozanne Andersen, CEO of CBS News the debt collector who left her the threatening message was terminated. And, after our call, the company settled with the Johnson family.What Can Consumers Do if Debt Collectors Break the Law?Koeppen says:File a complaint with their state attorney general's office, and with the FTC.And know your rights: know what debt collectors are allowed to do, and barred from doing.Click here for word on this from the FTC.

You can also file a lawsuit if you feel a debt collector has done something illegal in pursuing you.