Rising personal debt and bankruptcy filings grab headlines. Add to that access to easy credit and some really tempting spring shoe sales, and it's not a stretch to imagine 9 million Americans turning to the open arms of credit counseling firms each year.
But before you seek help handling your debt, take a gander at a report on the credit counseling industry published last year by the Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumer Law Center. The comprehensive study found that, unlike the previous generation of mostly creditor-funded counseling services, a new generation of agencies often harms debtors with improper advice, deceptive practices, excessive fees, and abuse of their nonprofit status.
The last thing you want to do is compound your credit card troubles. Fools on the Consumer Credit/Credit Cards discussion boards have a lot of experience with debt management firms -- both good and bad. For first-hand advice on working with a credit counselor and how it affects your score, jump in the conversation. (If you're not a Fool member, click this link.)
For those seeking a more formal get-out-of-debt plan, heed the following advice offered in the "Credit Counseling Crisis" report. Here's a list of what to avoid:
1. High fees. In general, if the setup fee for a debt management plan (also known as debt consolidation) is more than $50 and monthly fees are higher than $25, look for a better deal. Similarly, if the agency is vague or reluctant to talk about specific fees, go elsewhere.
2. "Voluntary" fees that aren't so voluntary. Some agencies publicly claim that their fees are voluntary but don't pass this information on to consumers. Others will tell you that their fees are voluntary but will put a lot of pressure on you to pay the full fee, even if you can't afford it. Ask all agencies you contact whether their fees are voluntary. If the full fee is too much, do not pay the agency more than you can afford.
3. The hard sell. If the person at the other end of the line is reading from a script and aggressively pushing debt "savings" or the possibility of a future "consolidation" loan, hang up.
4. Employees paid by commission. Employees who receive commissions for placing consumers in debt management plans are more likely to be focusing on their own wallets than yours.
5. Trigger-happy sales tactics. Any agency that offers you a debt management plan in less than 20 minutes hasn't spent enough time looking at your finances. An effective counseling session, whether on the phone or in person, takes a significant amount of time, generally 30 to 90 minutes.
6. A one-size-fits-all plan. The agency should talk to you about whether a debt management plan is appropriate for you rather than assume that it is. If the agency doesn't offer any educational options, such as classes or budget counseling, consider one that does.
7. Aggressive ads. Many agencies that advertise treat consumers fairly. However, some are being investigated or sued for deceptive practices. Many others charge unreasonable fees or offer no real counseling. Don't just respond to TV and Internet advertising or telemarketing calls. Get referrals from friends or family, find out which agencies have been subject to complaints, and talk to a number of agencies before making a decision.
Many of the services offered by credit counseling firms -- negotiating lower interest rates, consolidating debt, budgeting -- are doable without the help of a pro. Before you pick up the phone, read our free Get Out of Debt Guide (and be sure to download the free .pdf file workbook). A well-informed consumer will avoid getting taken for a ride.