ORLANDO, Fla. -

The government's consumer finance watchdog agency announced today that it will closely oversee the operations of big companies that collect unpaid debt from consumers.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it will add debt collectors to the list of industries it monitors on a day-to-day basis.  According to the bureau, 30 million Americans have debt that is handled by collectors.

The debt collection industry has faced harsh criticism in recent years for employing hard-knuckled tactics that may violate federal protections against harassment and intimidation.

In the past, debt collectors could be punished for violating federal consumer laws, but federal authorities did not have the power to scrutinize their routine business practices. Under today's move, that will change on Jan. 2.

The consumer bureau already monitors the biggest banks, mortgage companies and private student lenders.