If you defaulted on your federal student loans and aren’t paying them back despite phone calls from collection agencies and garnishment of your wages, you may be surprised with a new tactic the government is using to collect student loan debt: lawsuits. Recently the government turned to filing lawsuits through private law firms after other collection methods fail.

The new lawsuit programs arrived in nearly 20 federal district courts across the country quietly, with little media attention. After years of communicating to defaulted borrowers through collection agencies, the federal government decided to try something more extreme by hiring private law firms to sue borrowers. With about 4 million borrowers in default on federal student loans, these private law firms may never run out of work.

The government almost always wins these lawsuits. When they win, they put a lien on the borrower’s assets. If the borrower owns a home, for example, their debt is attached to the house. This means that if the borrower tries to do anything with the mortgage, they are expected to clear up the debt first. For those who need to refinance or sell to save money each month, they can’t do so without first clearing the debt. For many, this challenge may seem insurmountable.

The story of Adriene McNally is especially disheartening. After filing for bankruptcy a decade ago, her hopes for a fresh start were diminished by her student loans, which were not cleared. She was working hard toward a healthy financial life when she got served on her birthday. Her frustration was understandable considering she was taking real steps toward financial freedom only to be set back by the lawsuit.

In extreme cases, the government can seize assets like homes, but government officials say it is “exceedingly rare.” Though it has happened before, borrowers should do everything they can to prevent the situation in the first place.

If you or a loved one is about to default or has already defaulted on federal student loans, it’s time to take steps to deal with that. By making a payment now or enrolling in a default rehabilitation program, you can stave off default and avoid the drastic measures the government is using to collect debt.