Households have fallen behind on essential bills like council tax and electricity by as much as £18bn, according to Citizens Advice, which says “families are living in fear” of bailiffs turning up.
The charity said it receives a call from someone with a bailiff-related issue every three minutes.
It helped more than 690,000 people with household bill problems last year, and said missed bill payments had overtaken credit card troubles as the main issue faced by consumers.
It found the biggest household debt is tax credit overpayments at £7.47bn, which needs to be repaid.
This is followed by council tax (£2.84bn); benefit overpayments (£2.66bn); water bills £2.20bn); rent arrears (£1.42bn), electricity and gas (£1.09bn); telecoms (£630m) and fines, fixed penalties and compensation orders (£610m).
The charity said an elderly couple who owed £700 in council tax are now afraid to open their front door after having a visit from bailiffs who were aggressive and threatened to call the police.
In another case, a man receiving cancer treatment who had missed a £30 parking fine found bailiffs in his home removing his belongings.
Citizens Advice wants tougher regulation and has called for a bailiff regulator “to fix this broken system”.
Chief executive Gillian Guy said: “Families are living in fear of a visit from the bailiffs, and small missed bills can skyrocket through excessive enforcement fees.”
The Local Government Association, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, said local authorities have a duty to collect taxes which fund essential services.
Richard Watts, chairman of the LGA’s resources board, said: “Councils understand the pressures some households are under and will support people who are in financial difficulty wherever possible.”
Russell Hamblin-Boone, chief executive of the Civil Enforcement Association, which represents bailiffs, said only 18% of the debt identified by Citizens Advice qualified for action by bailiffs.
He said: “A visit by an enforcement agent is always the last resort.
“Agents are highly trained and must follow a process set out in detailed regulations to ensure that they collect unpaid council tax and court fines fairly.
“We work closely with the voluntary sector and under the regulations people are sign posted to debt advice, which accounts for the increase in numbers.
“But if anyone has strong evidence of bad practice we will investigate.”
HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) said it does not use bailiffs to collect tax credit overpayments.
“We understand people get very worried about debt,” a spokesperson said.
“We do all we can to help by working with them to pay back debts over time.
“Our advice to anyone struggling with debt is to get in touch so we can help them.
“HMRC has safeguards in place to ensure that repayment of tax credits debt is affordable.
“For customers who do not have an ongoing tax credit award, HMRC makes payment arrangements so the debt can be reduced in a fair and manageable way.”