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Debtor Beware: How to Avoid Shady Credit Counseling Services

Americans have a debt problem. In fact, total household debt reached a record $13.29 trillion during the second quarter of 2018, according to Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data. What’s more, nearly 10 percent have a debt in collection.

[Read: Trying to Dig Out of Debt? Don’t Make These Mistakes.]

Those who are overwhelmed by debt often turn to credit counseling agencies to find help. They offer a variety of services, such as workshops, one-on-one coaching and debt management plans, all with a common objective. “The No. 1 goal is to leave people in a better financial situation,” says Julie Kalkowski, executive director of the Financial Hope Collaborative at Creighton University. The Financial Hope Collaborative is a financial education and counseling program for low- to moderate-income families living in Omaha, Nebraska.

However, not all credit counseling agencies are created equal. While some are accredited nonprofits, others are for-profit ventures that charge high fees and use questionable tactics, such as asking clients to dispute legitimate debts on credit reports or pay to become an authorized user on a stranger’s credit card. Unscrupulous agencies may drain the wallets of already cash-strapped families and fail to address the underlying issues like budgeting, which are needed to ensure long-lasting financial success.

“What gets people in trouble is they are looking for a quick, easy fix,” says Drew Kellerman, the founder of the financial firm Phase 2 Wealth Advisors in Gig Harbor, Washington. “If it’s legitimate, it’s not going to be a quick fix.”

Keep reading to learn more about what to expect from a good credit counseling agency and how to identify bad actors to dodge major missteps and avoid financial trouble.

Understand the basics of good credit counseling. Many nonprofit credit counseling agencies offer both free and paid services, Kalkowski says. They may offer complimentary consultations, financial literacy workshops or even one-on-one budgeting sessions free of charge. However, if you sign up for a debt management plan, expect to pay for the service. Debt management plans through nonprofits often have a startup fee of $30 to $40 and monthly fees of $20 to $40.

Most debt management plans have participants send a monthly payment to the credit counseling agency. The agency then distributes it to creditors. They also negotiate lower interest rates, and may be able to have fees waived and can help reduce or eliminate the number of collection calls a person receives. Keep in mind, most plans take 36 to 60 months to complete. Credit counseling agencies may also help consumers review credit reports and dispute errors.

[Read: 5 Signs You’re in Debt Denial.]

The services provided by credit counseling services are nothing consumers can’t do by themselves. “You could do it, but it’s an involved process,” says Kyle Winkfield, partner with financial firm O’Dell, Winkfield, Roseman and Shipp in the District of Columbia. The benefit of using an agency is that they have experience in negotiating debt payments and disputing incorrect information on credit reports. Paying an expert to do these tasks not only saves a person time, but can minimize the stress of having to navigate unfamiliar territory. “If you find a good one, they are worth more than they charge,” Winkfield says.

Watch out for common red flags. While good credit counseling agencies are transparent about their fees and services, unscrupulous ones can be evasive and pushy. Red flags include demands for payment before services start, failure to provide a contract, insisting on access to your bank account and promises of debt repair that sound too good to be true.

The federal Credit Repair Organizations Act prohibits the collection of payment before services are rendered, and agencies must also be clear about how much money they will be collecting while administering a debt management plan. “They have to tell you upfront what your total cost is going to be,” Kellerman says.

Some companies make use of unethical practices in order to quickly boost a person’s credit score. For instance, some companies will instruct people to dispute all debt on their credit report, even accounts they know are legitimate. Since debts are removed while credit bureaus investigate, this can provide a temporary boost in a person’s credit score but no long-term benefit. Some state laws, such as the Michigan Credit Services Protection Act, make this practice illegal as well.

Another gray area involves paying to become an authorized user on someone else’s credit card. Winkfield says he’s heard of people paying $1,500 a month for this service. Credit repair companies solicit people to “rent” their good credit score to others by adding authorized users to their credit cards. The credit repair agency gets a cut of the monthly payment in exchange for setting up the arrangement. The credit account will appear on the report of an authorized user and factor into an improved credit score. Known as piggybacking, the practice isn’t illegal, but may violate the terms of service for card issuers.

When evaluating whether a credit agency is legitimate, Kalkowski cautions against being too trusting of promises made by company representatives. “A lot of these people are so nice,” she says. They may pressure people to sign up immediately, if for no other reason than to get peace of mind. While they may seem caring, Kalkowski stresses, “These people are not your friends. They are out to make a buck.”

When and where to find help. While credit counseling agencies can help people in a variety of financial situations, Kellerman says it’s best to look for help as soon as you’re in danger of not being able to pay bills. “That would be a great time, before things go sideways, to seek out a financial planner or credit counseling agency,” he says.

Kalkowski recommends finding a nonprofit rather than a for-profit agency. Reputable companies may be accredited or certified by one of three organizations: The National Foundation for Credit Counseling, the Financial Counseling Association of America or the Council on Accreditation. Consumers can also check the Better Business Bureau for company ratings and reviews or discuss the matter with trusted friends and family members who may be able to make a recommendation.

[See: 10 Easy Ways to Pay Off Debt.]

Asking for help with debt can be difficult. Those in trouble may be hesitant to let others know, but Kalkowski says there should be no shame in reaching out for a lifeline if finances become unmanageable. “There are a lot of Americans in this sinking boat,” she says. Rather than going it alone, use the resources available to keep your finances afloat.

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Debtor Beware: How to Avoid Shady Credit Counseling Services originally appeared on usnews.com



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