For many people, the most vicious and brutal four-letter word in the vocabulary doesn’t start with “F” and rhyme with truck. It’s DEBT.

Indeed, if you’re swimming — or perhaps sinking — in debt, then be assured that you aren’t alone. The average household debt in the UK has now surged to £15,400, spread out across banks, credit card companies, and other lenders. And that’s not even the worst of it. According to the Registry Trust, which stores records of County Court Judgements (CCJs) in England and Wales, there were over 320,000 consumer CCJs in the first quarter of 2019 — the highest ever recorded.

If debt collectors are poised to strike or have started waging an attack, then here is your 5-step survival guide:

Step 1: Don’t ignore letters and calls, and don’t procrastinate either. It’s like having a bad toothache: the longer you put off dealing with it, the worse and more painful it will get until you stumble to the dentist begging for mercy (but at least dental office design has improved over the years, so you can surf the web or watch TV while you anxiously wait for the drilling to begin). 

Step 2: In the immortal words of late author Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic! Debt collectors are extremely capable of terrifying and terrorizing. Stay calm, and remember: there is no debtors prison, and you , have legal rights and protections.

Step 3: Make sure that you actually owe the debt in question. Debt collectors make all kinds of mistakes. And even if you’ve confirmed that a debt is owed, there may be some discrepancy regarding the amount. You can check your credit report online, and if that doesn’t answer your questions then demand to see proof of the amount you allegedly owe.

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Step 4: If possible, review (or have someone competent who you trust review) all of the contracts or agreements that relate to your debt, in order to verify that interest amounts are valid instead of arbitrary. Keep in mind that regardless of their threats and scare tactics, collectors may be “statute barred” from collecting old debts (typically six years or older). 

Step 5: Once a debt has been confirmed, negotiate a settlement with debt collectors. Contrary to popular belief, you do not necessarily need to pay the full amount. In fact, virtually all debt collectors will gladly accept less than the full amount that is technically owed. After all, 50 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.

You may also benefit from working with a firm that specialises in helping people deal with debt collectors. Naturally, these firms charge a fee for their services, and some can be quite expensive all things considered. However, it may be worth the cost, considering that debt collectors can and often do break the rules to achieve their goal. If you are well informed and have the time, then you should be able to handle it yourself. If you are more comfortable working with experts or if you are busy, then getting some help on your side might be the way to go.