Mr David Chen's wife was alone at home one night in January when three men turned up, banging gates and shouting vulgarities. When she ignored them, they turned off the electricity supply to the flat.
The men were from a debt-collecting firm, and such companies have been growing bolder in the use of harassment tactics.
According to the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case), it has received complaints about debt collectors who impersonate police officers and demand payments higher than the loan amount. In one case, they even unleashed a dog into a debtor's office.
Given the rise in complaints against such firms in recent years, Case is now calling for the industry to be licensed and for laws to govern how money can be collected.
Case executive director Seah Seng Choon told The Sunday Times: "Debt collectors should be required by law to abide by a code of conduct to carry out their debt collection in a non-oppressive and non-intrusive manner."
Between January and September, Case received 15 complaints about harassment by debt collectors. There were 37 last year, 11 in 2013, and eight in 2012.
Debt collection firms are usually hired by licensed moneylenders, furniture retailers, telecommunication companies, fitness clubs and insurance firms to collect money owed. There is no specific legislation that regulates debt collectors, said the Registry of Moneylenders.
The Credit Collection Association of Singapore, formed in November last year to try and lift industry standards, has a code of ethics that requires its members not to use "oppressive or intrusive collection procedures". But it has just 13 members, a fraction of the 300 or so companies in the market, and even then, it does not have much power to enforce the code.
The Protection from Harassment Act , which came into force in November last year, allows debtors to apply for protection orders and claim for damages, but the legal process can be daunting, said veteran lawyer Amolat Singh.
Police step in when the debt collection antics turn criminal - such as in January, when debt collectors who confronted a stall owner at Funan DigitaLife Mall's foodcourt and damaged items were later charged with unlawful assembly.
But Mr Singh said more often than not, victims are told to seek redress through the court or engage a lawyer. "By licensing, undesirable characters can be rooted out. Further, (debt collectors) can be made to learn and know about the dos and don'ts, the limits in the law of pursuing a debtor and where that right ends," he said.
But several debt collection firms claim that they too have a tough job.
Mr Roger Rajan, owner of the JMS Rogers debt collection agency, said: "Recalcitrant debtors and scammers have badly affected the lives of creditors. Some have lost their life savings or are on the verge of closing their businesses because of bad debts."
A tough approach is needed in certain cases. "Knocking on doors louder than usual is sometimes needed to get the attention of the people inside," he said. "And to be taken seriously, we sometimes need to address the matter in an audible and clear manner."
He added that debtors had also threatened his employees with metal rods and parangs. Debt collectors who overstep the law also tend to be new companies which did not train their men properly, he said.
For Mr Chen, a 47-year-old part-time waiter and security guard, January's incident was the second time that month that debt collectors visited his home to claim the $2,000 that he owed a motoring firm. He has since lodged a police report and a complaint with Case.
"I was worried that my 18-year- old son and 20-year-old daughter will be attacked when they returned home," he said. The debt collectors left after police arrived.
This article was first published on November 8, 2015.
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