Image: Debt collector © Le Club Symphonie, Cultura, Getty Images

Debt collectors are a lot like vultures. Once they sense that you're in trouble, they'll pick at you until there's nothing left. They shamelessly (and often illegally) harass consumers, ruining lives in the process. For consumers, debt is bad enough, but the unrelenting, aggressive and demeaning phone calls from company collectors or third-party agencies can make you feel as if you're being stalked. Anyone who's ever been in that position will tell you it's somewhere they never want to be again in their lives.

If you're in debt and the birds of prey are circling, there are a few things you can do to fend them off. You have rights as an American citizen -- rights that debt collection agencies cannot infringe upon, no matter how much money you owe. The next time collectors come calling, use these techniques to keep them at bay.

Get everything in writing

A debt collector can't legally pursue you unless he or she gives you a written statement outlining your debt within five days of contacting you. You don't have to say anything to him or her over the phone until that letter arrives. If the letter doesn't arrive within five days, you may have grounds to sue him or her for harassment.

Write a cease-and-desist letter

In-house collection agents for banks and credit card companies are forthcoming about their identities. Third-party collectors who buy your debt from your credit issuer are not. They'll try to keep their identities a secret, because they know that the Fair Debt Collection Act gives you the power to demand, in writing, that they stop calling you. Try to get the caller to give you a name and address. Then write multiple certified letters demanding that the calls stop. It's important to make sure all your letters are certified; otherwise the collectors may deny receiving them.

Know your rights

Never, ever believe anything a debt collector tells you. Multiple collection agencies have been slammed by the Federal Trade Commission recently for deceiving consumers into believing that they owed money when they didn't. Because debtors' rights vary by state, it's up to you to do your research and keep yourself informed. A working knowledge of your rights is your best defense against a collection agency's lies.

Negotiate your debt down

Debt collectors are aggressive about pursuing their money partly because they're desperate themselves. They need your money if they're going to stay afloat in this economy, and that need makes many of them open to compromise. Don't accept any of their payment plan offers when they call. Instead, offer to pay 10% to 15% of what you owe. Tell them you can't afford more, and stand firm. If you haggle with them every step of the way, they're likely to let you off for a fraction of your total debt. Just remember to keep the next rule in mind when making any agreement with your collection agency.

Record everything

As soon as your debt collector starts calling, record everything he or she says. Inform the collector that you are monitoring the conversation and start taping. When you make an agreement with him or her, get it in writing and keep the letter on file. Think of it as gathering evidence. If the collection agency ever crosses the line, you'll have a strong enough case to take the agency to court. Sometimes, even a small clerical error is enough to get your debt completely erased. You can win the battle only if you've got enough bullets.

Contact an attorney

If a collection agency continues to overstep its bounds to contact you, consider contacting an attorney. If you've been recording evidence of after-hours calls and verbal harassment, you may be able to file a lawsuit. You might even be able to clear your debts through a settlement.

The bottom line

Debt collection agencies walk all over consumers because they think they can get away with it. Consumer inaction has led them to believe that they can infringe on a debtor's rights through intimidation and deception. Don't become a victim of illegal collection practices. If the vultures are after your debt, use these tips to shoot them down. The chances of getting some or all of your debt forgiven are higher than you might think.

Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

More from Investopedia: