There’s a new scam in town: Pretending to be from the government or a business that the victim knows, con artists have been calling Mainers and pressuring them over the phone to pay debts immediately using wire transfers or pre-paid debit cards. It’s an appalling scheme to separate honest people from their money, and the Maine Attorney General’s Office has rightly cautioned consumers to beware of these calls and to hang up if they get one.

But there are bigger problems than just the prevalence of scammers attempting to scare people into paying bogus debts. Too many collection agencies are employing questionable strategies to collect legitimate debts — and consumers are hit hard by these tactics because of a lack of meaningful regulatory constraints. Given the high cost of a poor credit rating, the debt collection system in our country is past due for a major overhaul.

More than a third of all Americans — about 77 million people — has a debt that’s gone to collections, according to a recent Urban Institute study, fueling a boom in the number of companies in the business of collecting money owed to others. And too many of these companies don’t play by the rules.

Between July and December 2013, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau received 30,300 complaints about the collections industry. The most common one? That collection agencies were hounding consumers for money they don’t owe — either a bill that they’ve already paid or, more frequently, another person’s debt.

Saying that people owe money when they don’t is particularly reprehensible, considering the serious consequences of bad credit in our society. A record of delinquent bill-paying makes it harder to get a job, a place to live and affordable car insurance. And under federal law, creditors can seize up to a quarter of a worker’s after-tax paycheck to pay consumer debt.

Another issue: collectors who threaten to arrest a consumer for not paying a debt or who pretend to be government officials — both practices that are barred by federal law. The mere fact that someone owes money doesn’t mean they deserve such harassment and intimidation.

The abuses of the debt collection industry demand action by federal policymakers, including regulations that apply to all persons trying to collect a debt (the original creditor as well as the collection agency); mandatory verification procedures — such as the consumer’s name and address in the original creditor’s records — to prevent mistaken identity; and stringent timelines for notifying the consumer about the debt.

To protect the financial well-being of its citizens, a country that runs on credit can’t afford to do anything less.

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