Last year nearly 1.5 million consumers turned to the bankruptcy
court system to seek relief from their debts. Much of that debt was
consumer debt racked up on credit cards. Medical bills were the
second largest cause of debt.
Along with the rise of bankruptcy cases there is a veritable
explosion of nonprofit credit counseling agencies seeking to "assist"
consumers with their debt management. Unfortunately, the name does
not always describe the company these days.
Some state regulators and even the IRS are starting to investigate
these counseling companies for fraud and other corporate no-no's.
Example 1: Nonprofit company A is hooked up with for-profit company
AA. When a client comes to company A, they pay a "voluntary" fee and
then are set up with company AA which makes them a debt consolidation
loan. Ergo, no counseling took place, lifestyles did not change, and
the consumer will be back in credit card trouble again within a few
Example 2: Nonprofit company C sets up an easy-once-a-month
repayment plan for the client. The fee for this plan can range from a
small "contribution" to equal to one months repayment amount. Then
the company fails to pay the bills on time, or at all, and the client
winds up with a worse credit history.
What can you do to protect yourself from these for-profit nonprofits?
Call the Better Business Bureau and see if the credit counseling
agency has any complaints lodged against it. Also check out
www.nasconet.org the website for National Association of State
Charities Officials and find the state agency charged with oversight
of charitable groups in your area. Are there any complaints on record?
Don't rush and fail to read your contract and make sure you
understand every word. If you don't understand what the contract
says, don't sign it.
Get all oral promises in writing, avoid outrageous claims and
don't believe claims that creditors settle for less than the full
amount owed. Many creditors are requiring more stringent scrutiny of
debtors before even reducing interest.
Watch the hustle about "voluntary fees". Either a fee is required,
or not. Pay attention to the monthly service charges for the DMP -
debt management program. If the non-profit company requires an
upfront fee equal to one month's repayment, go somewhere else.
After you do sign up for a DMP, check with your creditors on a
regular basis to make sure the company is doing what they promised
and paying your bills on time. Even if you are with a debt management
program, when the creditor doesn't receive their money, the damage is
done to your credit report.
Hopefully, the IRS will soon weed out the bad companies from the
legitimate counselors. The time estimate is from a year to more than
five, and that's if the companies have not met the letter of the law
and are blatantly breaking a law. Until the bad apples are shut down
you have to do your homework and find a good counseling organization
that will help you set up a budget to ensure that you can afford the
When looking for a debt counseling company, I recommend that you go
online to www.google.com, and type in Consumer Credit Counseling
Service (CCCS) plus your state or city. This will help you narrow
your search down to the members of the Consumer Credit Counseling
Service in your locality. Also, you can look at www.nfcc.org which
is the website for the National Federation of Consumer Counselors,
many of whom operate under the label of Consumer Credit Counseling
Service. This label is a term used only be accredited agencies who
are true non-profit agencies legitimately operating for the good of
the debt burdened public.
One final word of warning, if it sounds too good to be true, it
probably is. When you seek a consumer counselor to help you set up a
debt management program, don't sign anything unless they actually
counsel you and help you set up a budget you can live on and still
make the monthly payments to pay off your debts.
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