Kristy Schwarm was introduced to collection agencies after she bounced an $83.41 check at a Mendocino County FoodMaxx. She soon started receiving menacing letters on district attorney and sheriff's department letterhead, warning her she was under criminal investigation and threatening her with arrest.

In rural Fresno County, an 18-year-old student living with her parents became anxious and depressed and eventually dropped out of school after a Hanford-based collector kept calling at home and at work about a delinquent $3,509.18 hospital bill.

"Her voice is stuck in my head, and it's ugly, ugly," said Margarita Guzman of Parlier, a town of about 13,000 southeast of Fresno. "She made me feel like I was this bad person and couldn't be responsible.

"Then people started asking me, 'Why are you putting up with this?' " said Guzman, now 23.

Harassing phone calls, threats of arrest, vulgar language, calls to employers, lawsuits against people who don't even owe money – all are hallmarks of the Wild West tactics consumers are confronting amid the troubled economy.

But there is a twist. A surging number of Californians – including Guzman and Schwarm – are turning the tables on collection agencies as the state experiences an explosion in lawsuits filed against debt collectors.

Read more at the Sacramento Bee: