How would you feel if you came home and found a note in your mailbox from your neighbor urging you to call your debt collector?

Ashamed? Humiliated?

Well, that's how one Maryland woman said she felt after opening such a note. The call her neighbor received was from the company that financed the woman's husband's truck. He was behind on the payments.

The neighbor's note "said a company had called and left a message with them," the woman said. "My neighbor wrote that the company had indicated that something had to be paid. I was first embarrassed and then livid.

"Now our neighbors are aware we were having these financial difficulties. It's like my neighbor has seen me taking a shower without a curtain. We usually run a pretty tight ship financially. Clearly, my spouse was in the wrong, but I didn't want the outside world to know all my business. What the loan company did was just not right."

It may not be right, but it is, for the most part, legal. And it might happen to you or someone you know as more consumers struggle with mounting debts.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits certain methods of debt collection, but companies are allowed to contact a third party to track down a debtor.

For example, if you're behind on payments, a collection agency may contact people you know, but only to find out where you live, what your phone number is or where you work. A debt collector may not call third parties under the pretense of gaining information that's already in his or her possession, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Debt collectors are prohibited from contacting such third parties more than once unless they have reason to believe that an earlier response was wrong or incomplete. If that is the case, they may call that third party back.

I understand the need for companies to collect their debts, but this tactic of contacting a neighbor to pressure someone into paying up is an invasion of privacy.

"This is an appalling practice whether it's prohibited by law or not," said Shirley Rooker, president of Call for Action, a nonprofit network of consumer hotlines. "I'm a great believer in helping businesses, and I believe people should pay their debts. But personally I wouldn't want to be the person put in the middle to help a company collect a debt. In many cases, you are dealing with people who have been traumatized by some major event. So why try to ruin their reputation in their neighborhood?"

I agree with Rooker.

In the Maryland woman's case, the debt collector certainly knew her telephone number, where she lived, and where she and her husband worked. In fact, the woman said her husband had already arranged a plan to catch up on his truck payments. Even if he hadn't, the call to the neighbor was unconscionable.

Under the law, a collector may contact you in person or by mail, telephone, telegram or fax. But a debt collector may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree. A debt collector also may not contact you at work if the collector has been told by the debtor that his or her employer disapproves of such contacts.

By law, you can also stop a debt collector from contacting you. All you have to do is write a letter to the collection service telling it to stop. You may want to send the letter certified to prove it was received.

Once the collector receives your letter, representatives may not contact you again except to say there will be no further contact, or to notify you that the debt collector intends to take some specific action.

Sending such a letter does not make the debt go away, however. The debt collector can still sue you for the amount owed.

As outlined by the FTC, debt collectors may not:

* Use threats of violence or harm.

* Use obscene or profane language.

* Repeatedly use the telephone to annoy a debtor.

* Falsely imply they are lawyers or government representatives.

* Falsely imply that you have committed a crime.

* Falsely represent that they operate or work for a credit bureau.

* Misrepresent the amount of your debt.

* Indicate that papers being sent to you are legal forms when they are not.

If you believe a debt collector has violated the law, you have the right to sue in a state or federal court within one year from the date the law was violated. If you win, you may recover money for the damages you suffered plus an additional amount up to $1,000. Court costs and attorneys' fees also can be recovered.

You should also report any violations to your state attorney general's office and the FTC.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act isn't intended to get debtors off the hook. Debtors do have an obligation to honor their debts. But they shouldn't be humiliated or subjected to horrid tactics from companies trying to collect money due.

For a chance to win a copy of April's Color of Money Book Club selection, send me your name, address, and daytime and evening phone numbers on a postcard or blank index card. No e-mailed entries will be accepted. Send your entry, marked for April, to the Color of Money Book Club, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Entries must be postmarked by March 29.

While Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. Readers can write to her at the above address or by e-mail at singletarym@washpost.com.