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High unemployment and increasing credit-card delinquencies mean more work for debt collectors.

“Debt collection is a booming business," said Gerri Detweiler, a personal finance advisor for Credit.com. “And the number of complaints about [debt collectors] is also on the rise."

If you are in debt over your head, here are six tips for how to best tread water.

No. 1: Verify the Debt

If you get a call looking for payment on a debt you can’t seem to place, ask for proof.

“You have the right to ask for validation of the debt,” said Detweiler. “Ask them to send in writing what you owe. They can’t collect until they send it to you, which gives you time to do some research.”

No. 2: Know Your Rights

The Federal Trade Commission has enacted the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to protect consumers. Collectors are not allowed to call repeatedly, call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., use threats or profanity. 

“Some collectors say things like ‘If you don’t pay this week we will talk to your employer and garnish your wages.' They can’t do that without going to court first,” said Detweiler.

No. 3: Make it Your Terms

If the first contact made from a collector is via telephone, you can tell them you wish to precede strictly in writing, said Joe Mauro, a consumer protection lawyer in New York City. And they must abide.

You can also send a letter saying you wish all communication to stop, but that doesn’t mean the matter will just disappear. 

“At that point the only option they have left is to sue you,” said Mauro. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t owe them money.”

No. 4: Keep Good Records

Document all written communication, the experts suggest. While state laws differ on recording live conversation, be sure to keep any voicemails and letters.

For phone conversations, be sure to take notes -- with dates, time and the name of the person you spoke with.

No. 5: Negotiate a Payment Plan

If you owe the money and can afford to pay it, you can negotiate for less than the full balance.

“As far as your credit is concerned it doesn’t matter if you pay in full or settle for less, either way your score is going to take a hit,” said Detweiler.

When working out a payment plan, make your first offer low.

“Offer 10 cents on the dollar," suggests Howard Dvorkin, the founder of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services. “They will say no, but then you negotiate, and truthfully, depending on the age of the debt, you could get 50 or 60 cents on the dollar. The last thing they are going to do is turn down money.”

When you do come to terms with a payment plan make sure to get it in writing, and keep all documentation for at least five years.

No. 6: Mum's the Word

Limit the information you tell collectors. Don’t go into your financial or employment situation or give any other details they could potentially use against you. Under no circumstances should you give them your bank account number. 

“That gives them the potential to draw the debt down faster than what was negotiated," said Ben Woolsey, director of marketing and consumer research for Creditcards.com. “Use Paypal or another third-party pay system.”

And don’t lie - that will almost definitely get you sued, the experts warned.

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