Counselor going over papers with older couple © SelectStock, the Agency Collection, Getty Images

Ring, ring. As soon as you hear your phone, you break out in a cold sweat. Is it a debt collector calling you to harass you about paying your bills? You ignore the call. Later, you listen to a moment or two of the voicemail message and delete it quickly when you discover that, yes, it was a debt collector.

This scenario is all too common. Unfortunately, ignoring a debt collector does do you no good, and it can keep you from getting more credit and loans in the future. Here are some tips to help you work with debt collectors instead of hiding from them:

No. 1: Take thorough notes

A debt collector is often not the same institution you dealt with when you applied for the loan or credit card. The collection agency is instead working off of the notes available to it, which might not contain much information. If you start getting phone calls from collection agents, the first thing you should do is gather all your notes, including receipts, invoices and past-due notices, as well as your own personal notes of interactions and commitments you've made.

Make sure your personal documentation include dates and names, and keep the log updated throughout your interaction with the agent. I've seen debts reduced and even eliminated because a consumer was able to quickly prove that he or she had indeed made payments on time.

No. 2: Keep your mutual goals in mind

Because of the situation, it's easy to feel as if the collection agent is threatening you and judging you. But remember this: Both of you want the same result. You both want to resolve the outstanding amount. You just have to figure out how to get to that goal. If you keep this in mind and take the approach of "let's work together to solve the problem," any discomfort should melt away.

No. 3: Explore your options

Collection agents have several tools at their disposal to help you settle the outstanding debt. They don't have to have all the money immediately. By asking what your options are, you might be surprised at how quickly and easily you can repay what you owe without hardship.

Paying small amounts over several months will eventually eliminate your debt, and if you make your payments on time, you can even eliminate those collection calls.

No. 4: Tackle the underlying cause

Start tracking all your bills, including such debts as co-pays at doctors' offices you may get billed later for. If you don't get a bill in the mail, follow up. You don't want the medical office to send a small debt to collections, where it can cost you big on your credit scores.

No one wants to be sent to collections, but it does happen sometimes. If you find yourself in that situation, use the above to help you take control and work most effectively with a collection agency.

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