If you’ve ever been dunned by a debt collector, you’re not alone: Roughly one in seven American adults is being pursued by a collector, for amounts averaging about $1,500.

That’s according to a report from the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit research group.

Complicating the situation is that debt collection has become a larger, more complex industry. If you have trouble paying a personal debt — whether it’s a credit card balance, a student loan, a utility bill or a medical bill — and you are deemed to be in default, your account is likely to be handled eventually by someone other than the original creditor. Banks, hospitals, utilities and other businesses often sell debts at a steep discount to third-party buyers, who try to collect the payment themselves or hire outside firms to do so; often, the same debt is resold multiple times, and sometimes debts are packaged and sold in bulk.

Along the way, details of the original debt may be lost or become outdated, meaning that collectors may try to demand payment of debts that have already been settled or belong to someone else. It’s unclear exactly what proportion of consumers is wrongly pursued, said Leslie Parrish, deputy director of research with the Center for Responsible Lending and a co-author of the report. But the report notes that as little as 6 percent of debts purchased by the largest debt-buying firms in 2009 came with any sort of documentation.

“What people don’t know is that their debt can be sold to a debt buyer, who may sell it to another, and another,” said Ms. Parrish.

It’s usually best to contact creditors yourself if you run into financial difficulties, to try to work out payment arrangements and avoid having the debt sent to collection. But you do have certain rights when dealing with a debt collector, under a federal law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Read more at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/20/your-money/dealing-with-debt-collectors.html