IF YOU are in debt, you may have breathed a sigh of relief following the release of a set of guidelines aimed at protecting debtors from loan sharks. But don't be fooled, as that is all they are, guidelines. The Hongkong Association of Banks (HKAB), which issued them, has no power to enforce them, as it is not a regulatory body. In fact, as a person in debt, you have not gained any rights vis-a-vis the guidelines, even though they aim to ensure debt collection is handled in a legal, not to mention humane, manner. The guidelines were issued by the HKAB to its 167 members, which hire debt collection agencies, after Secretary for Security Alistair Asprey expressed concern about the legality of some collection firms. ''The guidelines do not affect the actual debt collectors, nor do they affect the debtor; they were simply implemented to influence the banks,'' said Phil Martin, secretary of the HKAB. According to the guidelines, the 167 banks are responsible for all actions taken by their debt collectors. This means that if you fail to keep up the payments on a loan, you should immediately contact the bank's manager if a debt collector plays rough. But whether this will help you in any practical manner is another matter. Debtors should know several things. First, be aware that in Hongkong there is still no limit to the amount of harassment a collector can give a debtor, as long as it is within the law. Thus, if you receive nine visits a day from different individuals asking you to pay up, there is nothing you can do. And if you are bombarded by 395 telephone calls a day, unplugging the phone is really your only course of action. But if debt collectors give the impression that you, a member of your family, or your property is in danger, debtors should remember that alerting the bank now triggers prompt police attention, and protection if necessary. Under the guidelines, lenders must notify the police upon receiving complaints from debtors, so protection can be provided for the debtor. In addition, lenders should enter into a formal contract with debt collection companies. And as these contracts include clauses requiring collectors to act within the law at all times, it is in the debtor's interest to contact the bank if these clauses are not respected. To ensure the clauses are honoured by the collection company, lenders are asked to make unscheduled visits to the company's premises for verification. But for debtors looking to the HKAB's new policy for protection, remember they are only recommendations. ''Actually, we can't even say they are new regulations, they are really just guidelines,'' said Mr Martin.