The Federal Trade Commission reports that the number of complaints about debt collectors rose from 104,766 a year in 2008 to 140,036 in 2010, says Tom Pahl, assistant director of the FTC’s division of financial practices.

The agency has stepped up enforcement, taking 10 companies to court in the past three years, compared with six in the previous three years.

“We receive more complaints about the debt collection industry than any other industry,” Pahl says. “The conduct of debt collectors is a major consumer protection problem.”

A few months after she buried both her sons, Barbara Sowell started getting calls from a collection agency demanding payment for Garner & Son funeral home.

“They tortured me is what they did. It got to the point I dreaded answering the phone,” says Sowell, 72, of San Augustine, Texas, a former waitress who raised five children. As a young woman, she lost a leg in a car accident and now lives on a $694-a-month disability check. “The worst thing they said was, ‘You’re just a deadbeat. How would you like Garner & Son to go to his grave and dig up his body and bring it to you at your house.’ ”

Sowell called the FTC, which filed a lawsuit saying the collector’s behavior broke the law.

“In hard times, people have a harder time paying, and debt collectors have to work harder to go after them,” Pahl says. “Some debt collectors cross the line into violation of the law.”

The FTC prosecutes the worst cases, which paint a harrowing picture of aggressive tactics by some debt collectors:

•The FTC’s lawsuit in Sowell’s case accuses employees of Rumson, Bolling & Associates of screaming at debtors, calling them “deadbeat,” “white trash,” “cracker head” and “scumbag,” according to an FTC complaint filed in September.

Attorney Chris Pitet, who represents Rumson, says that if Sowell or any other debtors were abused “it was not a company policy.” Company President David Hynes took “serious disciplinary actions,” including firing at least one employee, Pitet says. A court-appointed receiver has seized the company and plans to shut it down. Pitet is challenging that action while preparing to respond formally to the lawsuit.

•Employees in the debt collection department of loan company Payday Financial in Timber Lake, S.D., instructed employers to garnish wages, claiming falsely that it can be done without a court order, according to an FTC complaint filed in September.

Payday Financial, which requires debtors to sign an agreement to have their wages garnished if they don’t pay, admits to having instructed employers to garnish wages without a court order but denies that the practice is illegal, according to its Oct. 4 response to the lawsuit, which is still pending.

•Employees of West Asset Management of Marietta, Ga., withdrew funds from consumers’ bank accounts or charged their credit cards without consent, according to an FTC complaint filed March 10.

Two days later, the company did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to pay a $2.8 million fine and to submit to federal monitoring.

As unemployment stays at about 9%, “there are more people facing a call from a debt collector,” says Mark Schiffman, spokesman for ACA International, a trade association for debt collectors. “People are struggling. …There are more people with mortgages, student loans, hospital bills or even library fines. Someone who owns that debt is seeking to get paid.”

Schiffman says “there are no excuses for” the kinds of abuses the FTC describes. He says his members want a chance to resolve complaints before they are prosecuted, as allowed under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created last year by Congress.

“We will continue to work with our members to prevent, reduce and resolve consumer complaints,” Schiffman says.