When you find yourself living paycheck to paycheck and are buried in bills, you may be considering debt relief. Debt relief services come in many forms, from debt management to consumer credit counseling. Each has its own set of benefits and can help you get out of debt. First, find a reputable firm that offers these relief services. A legitimate program will offer its services in accordance with consumer laws set by the Federal Trade Commission.
Even if the debt relief agency is nonprofit, it can charge a service fee. A legitimate program will be up front with its fees and pricing – including add-on fees like transfer charges or administrative fees. It's up to you to decide if paying these fees is worth it. According to the Federal Trade Commission, some debt relief programs charge a fee that reflects the amount of money you've saved by using them -- these firms are best avoided.
The FTC does require debt relief programs to offer disclosure about their services. A legitimate service will provide these disclosures, which can include pricing and terms, the results it's claiming – including a time frame of how long it will take to pay down the debts or receive notification from creditors – any offer amounts it's suggested to creditors, and the consequences if you stop making payments. In addition, the program’s disclosures should state that any money you deposit in the program is yours – with interest – and that you’re allowed to withdraw your money at any time. If the company doesn’t state you can withdraw your money or doesn’t give clear disclosures, it's unlikely to be legitimate.
Ratings and Listings
Before you choose a debt relief agency, look up the company with your local Better Business Bureau and your state’s Attorney General’s office. See if any complaints have been filed regarding its services, the nature of the complaints and their overall rating to help determine the company's legitimacy and overall customer experience. Companies claiming to be nonprofit must register with the state -- so verify with your local consumer protection agency if the company you’re considering is actually a nonprofit organization.
While a debt relief program can help you get out of debt legitimately, some illegitimate programs make false or misleading claims. Programs that claim you can settle your debts for pennies on the dollar can be based on shoddy practices. According to the FTC, there is no guarantee your creditors will accept such a low-ball offer, nor are they required to; therefore if a company claims they can get you this, they’re providing you with misleading information. In addition, a company that claims it can remove any negative information posted to your credit report because of your debts is not legitimate. Legitimate companies will inform you of your credit reporting rights, but also the fact of the matter is negative credit history is there and will stay there for seven to 10 years – no one can remove this.
Where to Look
While there are legitimate debt relief programs available online, sometimes you can find locally operated programs that are easier to access. For example, members of the military have access to credit counseling and debt relief programs on base. These services may be offered directly through the military or a trusted affiliate. Your financial institution may also have debt relief programs or can suggest companies it works with directly. Contact your local consumer protection agency for a list of trusted, legitimate programs in your area as well.
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