Hounded by debt collectors? What are your rights?

Updated: 

BY0Y91 A red bill showing an overdue account in debt and in urgent need of payment. Image shot 2010. Exact date unknown. overdue

If you are paid a visit by debt collectors, it can be a terrifying experience. You have no idea what powers they have, or what you should so. You just know that the officials are at your door demanding money.

So what can you do if the debt collectors - or bailiffs - come to call?

Debt collectors

Your position will depend partly on how serious things have become, and the kind of debt collectors you are dealing with.

If you have failed to make a payment, and ignored letters from the company you owe money to, they may sell your debt onto a private debt collection firm. They will contact you and try to get you to pay. If you ignore them, they may send representatives round to collect the money in person.

They have to abide by certain rules. They can't force themselves into your home: they are only allowed in if they are invited. If you subsequently ask them to leave they must go. They are not allowed to contact you at unreasonable times or visit you at inappropriate places such as your workplace. They mustn't call frequently or make threats - neither can they put you under pressure to pay in full or in large installments.

Bailiffs

Things are different when the situation deteriorates further and the bailiffs come to call - this usually happens after the people you owe money to take a case to court and prove that you owe them money.

In the vast majority of cases you still don't have to open the door to bailiffs. Even if you open the door, they don't have any right to force entry by, for example, pushing past you on the doorstep.
The exception to this rule is if you have unpaid criminal fines, income tax or stamp duty.

However, if you don't let them in or agree to pay them, they are allowed to charge you more fees - to reflect the cost of them paying you a visit. They also have the right to take things from outside your home - which could include your car.

If you let them in, but cannot pay them, they they have the right to confiscate as many of your belongings as they think it will take to cover the debt and their fees.

They can take things they consider luxuries like your TV or games console, but cannot take essentials like the fridge, things you need for work, or things that belong to someone else living in the house - providing you have proof that the item is not yours.

If you have the money to pay them, you should check their ID and get a detailed breakdown of what you owe. You don't have to let them in, you can pay them on the doorstep - but you should ask for a receipt immediately.

Whoever it is visiting your home, it can be highly distressing and alarming. It's a very good reason to address any debt problems before it gets to that stage. If you have been contacted about outstanding debts, your best bet is to contact a debt advice charity as soon as possible, who will help you take action before anyone visits your home.