Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: We have a cordial relationship with our next-door neighbors, but we are not close. We are aware that they have been experiencing financial difficulties, but they have never revealed any details and we haven't asked.

About three months ago, we started receiving calls from collection agencies saying that they had not been able to reach our neighbors, and asking us to tell our neighbors to contact them. There have been 15 or 20 of these calls, usually at dinnertime. When I tell them that we have no intention of doing their work for them and embarrassing our neighbors, they become persistent -- even rude.

I am infuriated by this invasion of our privacy, and the harassment to which we are being subjected because these agencies can't do their job. If they have our neighbor's address and have had no response to their letters, they should send someone in person to speak to them -- they shouldn't ask us to do it.

Abby, is this legal? And is there any regulatory agency we can contact to keep from being bothered? -- HARASSED IN SANTA CLARITA, CALIF.

DEAR HARASSED: No, it's not legal. According to the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you should have received no more than one phone call.

You can deal with this problem in one of two ways: Call the local office of the Fair Trade Commission and file a complaint, and they will go after the collector. Or, contact the local bar association and consult a consumer protection attorney. My experts tell me that you may be entitled to damages.

DEAR ABBY: My husband's brother and his wife live next door to us. Until recently, we were all best friends. My sister-in-law and I did everything together.

Not long ago, she accused me of doing something that she later found out I had not done. Even after finding this out, she has not apologized for accusing me. We were best friends for nine years, but now she won't even look in my direction.

I am hurt that she accused me before she got the facts, and angry that she never bothered to apologize. How should I handle this? Can we still be friends? -- NOT SO GUILTY AFTER ALL

DEAR NOT SO GUILTY: Your sister-in-law may be so embarrassed about her mistake that she's reluctant to approach you. Since the friendship is clearly important to you, be the bigger person and make the first move. Tell her you are relieved that she learned the truth, and you'd like to put the incident behind you so you can continue to be close friends.

DEAR ABBY: In regard to the family whose parents failed to keep in touch on a road trip, and therefore couldn't be located when a grandparent died, you advised, "The best policy is to leave a detailed itinerary with friends or family or ... make a point of checking in regularly."

I would like to add another suggestion: Before going on the road, invest in a long-distance pager. The cost is reasonable and can even include a toll-free pager number. Give the number to a couple of trusted friends or family members.

Back this up with voicemail service on your home phone and check your messages daily. If you call during off-peak hours, the cost will be minimal.

That's what I did, and it certainly gave me peace of mind. -- ELLEN K. HOWE, WEST COVINA, CALIF.

DEAR ELLEN: An excellent idea. Thanks for sharing it.

To order "How to Write Letters for All Occasions," send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Letter Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600