Bailiffs are frightening people in debt and charging fees for "phantom" visits they have never made, research by Citizens Advice has found.
The charity asked 500 people living in England and Wales who were being chased by bailiffs for council tax debt about their experiences. It found that almost two-fifths (38%) were charged fees for visits they said bailiffs had not made and a similar proportion (40%) were threatened with the removal of items that did not even belong to them.
One in five people said they received frequent or aggressive phone calls from the bailiff and one in 10 said they had been "bombarded" with text messages.
Some 13% of those surveyed said bailiffs had contacted their family, friends or neighbours about their debt and one in 12 (8%) had been approached in the street or at work by bailiffs.
Citizens Advice said that over the last year, nearly 17,000 people have reported a problem to it about bailiffs enforcing council tax debt.
Information collected by the charity from 222 local authorities in England between March and September 2013 shows a quarter of councils do not have any data on complaints about bailiffs.
Debts that are collected by bailiffs are often increased through bailiff fees. When councils pass debts to a bailiff they must first obtain a liability order from court, with many authorities charging people for the liability order.
Citizens Advice found a huge variation in the costs councils add to people's council tax debts for liability orders. Over two-thirds of councils charged more than £50 for a liability order, with 29% adding over £80 to people's debts.
One in 10 authorities charged less than £10, with some adding minimal costs of £3. But at the other end of the scale some authorities charge as much as £126 per liability order.
The speed at which some councils call in the bailiffs also prompted concerns. A Citizens Advice bureau in the South of England reported that a council had passed council tax arrears of just £21 to bailiffs. Costs for the liability order and bailiff fees hiked the debt up to £251.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: "Adding on excessive court costs, and bringing in the bailiffs early, flies in the face of supporting people who are finding it difficult to cope with rising living costs.
"Instead, councils need to identify payment problems early and point those people towards free debt advice as well as monitoring the performance of bailiffs by collecting and analysing complaints.
"The use of bailiffs should be an absolute last resort."
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: "It is unacceptable for councils to employ burly bailiffs with heavy-handed tactics like kicking down doors, making phantom visits or charging excessive fees - it is unfair and damages a council's standing in the community.
"Our guidance is crystal clear: it is time to stop the dodgy practices where town halls collect contractual kickbacks from bailiffs that will do almost anything to make money."