Category Archives: Credit Counseling

How to choose a credit counseling agency: ten tips

If you find yourself unable to pay your debts, it might be time to look into a credit counseling agency. However, it pays to do your homework before deciding to go with a particular company. Here are ten tips to help you get started down the right path.

1. Ignore what’s on TV

If you watch TV for an hour during the day or late at night, you’ll probably see at least three commercials for some form of debt counseling, management or relief agency. Ignore them all—these are usually for-profit companies concerned only with their own interests; whether or not you get back on your feet doesn’t even matter to them. Many are outright scams; nobody at the cable company is really investigating the commercials they run. As long as somebody pays, they’ll run the ads.

2. Nonprofit only

Make sure any credit counseling agency you use is a nonprofit. There is no reason to go with a for-profit credit counselor. To be safest, stick with those with at least 10 years in business.

3. Check the BBB

Check out any agency with the Better Business Bureau before you contact them. Stick to those with A or A+ ratings; there are plenty of these, leaving no reason to go with a B, C or D-rated company.

4. Make sure they are accredited

Check out any agency with either the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (AICCCA) or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) before working with them. These associations have strict guidelines for membership.

5. Find out about fees

Depending on what your needs are, many agencies do charge some form of fee. However, these should be in the $50 – $100 range at most. Anyone asking for thousands of dollars is running a racket.

6. Ask lots of questions

You need information, sure, but you also need to get a sense of who you’re dealing with. Even if you already know some of the answers, ask lots of questions anyway. If they’re evasive or give brush-off answers without explaining things, that’s a red flag. Move on.

7. Ignore offers to erase, reduce or repair

There is no legal way to remove accurate negative information from your credit history. If you go into credit counseling, your rating is going to take a hit for a while. That’s just part of the deal. But anyone offering to reduce your debts or erase your credit history is probably running a scam.

8. Don’t give them your information first

An agency that is unwilling to give you free information about their services without you first revealing personal details is to be avoided.

9. Talk to others

You probably know someone who’s already been through this. Talk to them. Find out if they had good or bad experiences with an agency.

10. Take your time

Don’t rush into making any decisions on credit counseling, and avoid agencies that pressure you. These are important decisions, and while it’s going to be great to eventually get out from under your debts, things can be less than ideal in the short term; you want to make it as easy on yourself as possible. Falling into a scam or getting ripped off will only make things worse. Proceed with courage, but proceed with caution!

Do credit repair companies work?

You see the advertisements on the Internet, in your inbox and even on television; “We can fix your bad credit!” All that negative stuff on your credit report—gone in a flash. These companies know how to take your hot mess of a credit report and turn it into a bright, shiny, new credit report with no negative information.

Fine. Dandy. Except that no, they can’t.

First, let’s get our definitions straight: there is credit counseling and credit repair. The first can be a legitimate way to fix the situation you’re in. The fact that you’re in credit counseling shows up as a negative hit on your credit report and will lower your score for a while, but when you’re in over your head, it’s probably worth it.

The second one is basically a sham.

You see, while the Fair Credit Reporting Act gives consumers the right to challenge (and ultimately have removed) inaccurate or outdated items on their credit reports, information that is timely and accurate stays. There is no “secret” method to getting it removed; if you defaulted on a credit card two years ago, that’s going to haunt you for a while. If you’re staying afloat but have a massive amount of debt racked up, that’s going to show up on your report. There’s no way around it.

In other words, any company that’s promising to erase your bad credit history is scamming you.

However, that doesn’t mean your credit can’t be repaired. The thing is, you have to take the initiative to do it yourself, and it takes time—several years, in some cases.

This may not be the answer you wanted, but it’s the only true answer.

So how do you repair your bad credit on your own? First, pay off everything you owe. Don’t take on new debt if you can avoid it. If you have to take on some debt, pay it on time, every time. Visit a credit union, too—many offer small “payday alternative” loans that make those Payday Loans look like the rip-off they are. These loans are for small amounts, with very low interest rates and easy repayment terms. You’ll probably have to verify employment to show you can and will repay the loan—this is why credit unions weren’t a part or cause of Economic Crash-N-Burn ’08—they generally only gave loans to people who could handle them. REGIONAL calls its version of this loan the Step Up Loan, by the way.

At any rate, showing that you can repay a small payday alternative loan will help you re-establish your credit history and start to swing the pendulum back towards “good credit.”

Okay, I know…Dave Ramsey says that all debt is bad debt, so he’d probably bristle at my mentioning this route towards rebuilding your credit. Obviously, the ultimate goal is to not owe anyone and be able to buy most things with cash. However, you’re probably not going to hit that “able to buy a house with a briefcase full of C-notes” point for several years. In the meantime, you’re going to need to rebuild your credit so you can borrow a little here and there. And heck, if you can operate without credit once you’ve got your old debts paid off, more power to you. But let’s stay grounded in the here-and-now reality of most people for the moment.

If you’re at the point where your debts and bad credit are overwhelming, it may be time to call in a good credit counseling agency. Just be sure to remember these points:

  1. Only use credit counseling services that are not-for-profit
  2. Never pay a credit counseling service up front
  3. Make sure the agency is Better Business Bureau accredited
  4. Make sure they have an A or A+ rating from the BBB
  5. Remember that it takes time and effort on your part to fix your credit; there are no free rides.

National Protect Your Identity Week is October 17-24, 2009

Actually, shouldn’t every week be Protect Your Identity Week?

Snide remarks aside, PYIW is apparently an awareness initiative by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. I’ll let them describe their organization (from their website):

Founded in 1951, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), Inc., promotes the national agenda for financially responsible behavior and builds capacity for its Members to deliver the highest quality financial education and counseling services. The NFCC is the nations largest and longest serving national nonprofit credit counseling network, with more than 100 Member agencies and nearly 850 offices in communities throughout the country. Each year, NFCC Members assist more than 3.2 million consumers, helping many to drive down their debt and take control of their finances.

Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Northwest Indiana is a member of this organization. They are one of the good ones—no misleading claims, true nonprofit structure, no insane promises, and an A+ rating from the BBB.

So, how to celebrate Protect Your Identity Week? Had I found out about this sooner, I would have set up some live presentations or something. But hey, if you hear about any bangin’ PYIW parties, be sure to keep me in the loop, ‘kay?

“Debt Crisis in America” Commercial

On Monday, I posted about an incredibly sleazy debt counseling commercial, and promised to find out who it was and post their BBB rating and some other information.

Well, apparently this ad is a “turnkey” job, where an advertising agency creates the commercial, and then plugs in the phone number of whatever company buys the ad from them. In other words, the company running the advertisement here in Northwest Indiana might not be the same company that uses it in Cleveland or Las Vegas or Anchorage.

Basically, that means I can’t call them out by name and post their BBB ratings, because it could be many different debt counseling companies.

However, what I can do is post a couple screenshots, so you’ll recognize it when you see it.

This is not a real news broadcast:

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Subtle, isn’t it?

Everything I have said or am about to say is my opinion. In other words, if your debt counseling company has been using this ad, save your time, money and breath. I’m not going to soften my position on this out of fear of litigation, because you haven’t got a case.

I believe that any debt counseling company that is using this advertisement is deliberately misleading consumers. They are running an advertisement specifically designed to trick people into thinking it is a genuine news broadcast (fine print or not), and that the President endorses their services. I would not give this advertisement a second glance, but if you want to figure out who is running it and what their BBB rating is, just for fun, try catching the phone number and Googling it when it appears on your TV.

If you are running a legitimate debt counseling company and have been using this commercial, I would stop running it immediately. You are going to damage your credibility because of people like me throwing you under the bus with the scumbags. You may be providing a wonderful service to those who need it, but your advertising is telling a different story.

If you are running a legitimate debt counseling company and have been considering using this commercial or similar, don’t. I don’t care how cheap it is. You don’t want to paint yourself with the same brush as the crooks. Looks sleazy? Is sleazy.

Misleading credit counseling advertisements on television

I just saw what may have been the sleaziest credit counseling commercial I’ve ever seen.

It appeared on the Weather Channel around 2:30 PM local time (I was watching Full Force Nature; they had some really killer close-up tornado footy).  Now, sleazy ads during daytime television are nothing new, but this one was incredible.

It began with footage of the President giving an address about the economy. I don’t know the date or specific topic of the speech—I know he used the phrase “drastic action.” This was framed by graphics designed to closely emulate the look of a broadcast from a cable news channel. There was a headline at the bottom of the screen about debt counseling, with a ticker underneath that, the kind they normally use to give up-to-the-minute stock prices.

After the (out-of-context) presidential clip, it cut to a woman in front of a photo of either the White House or the Capital Building. She was dressed in a sharp suit like a news anchor, and was telling you to call now for information on debt elimination. The headline and ticker remained at the bottom of the screen. If you weren’t paying close attention, you might easily mistake it for a genuine news item. Naturally, the color scheme of the ad was red, white and blue.

Of course, it wasn’t real. Consider these facts:

  1. Real news broadcasts don’t tell you to call a toll-free number for information on debt counseling
  2. The government does not endorse any such service, nor did it create the advertisement
  3. The President did not create or approve the ad, nor does he endorse any such service
  4. Anyone can create a TV commercial using cheap graphics and public domain footage and, as long as they purchase the time, have it run on television
  5. Ads that run during daytime television are created under the assumption that you are jobless, directionless, desperate and not very intelligent. In other words, they’re insulting. Take them with a massive grain of salt.

I didn’t catch the name of the company, but I wish I had. I’d gladly post it here, along with their BBB rating and the advice to not use their services. If I catch the commercial again, I’ll make note of this information. If it is a legitimate, non-profit counseling service, they need to be told that their advertisements are misleading and unbecoming. If they’re not, they need to be called out on it and run out of business.

There are real, non-profit credit counseling services available for those who need them. REGIONAL has a relationship with Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Northwest Indiana. They’ve got an excellent BBB rating.

If you’re in a different area, start with the Better Business Bureau, and don’t use any service with anything less than an A rating.

The Internet is just crawling with these people

Just as an illustration of how careful you have to be when it comes to credit repair/credit counseling/etc. on the Internet, after I posted yesterday’s article I also updated the FPU Twitter feed. The update contained the words “credit repair,” because I was stating how many of them were scams.

This morning I had three new followers on Twitter.

Every one of them was from a credit repair scam business. The first one was obvious…every post contained the same URL, they were following a thousand people but had three followers. The second was from a place with a D- rating by the BBB. The third had a big, fat F.

Needless to say, I blocked all three. Then I found a few that I’d missed, hiding out in my list of followers. I’m not allowing these criminals (which is what they essentially are) to follow the FPU on Twitter.

They’re watching Twitter for the words “credit repair” and latching onto anyone who mentions it. Not on my watch.

I may start calling them out by name every couple weeks if it happens enough to annoy me. I’ll just post their Twitter names, their business names, and their ratings from the BBB. And a warning that the Fraud Prevention Unit recommends you do NOT contact these businesses.

If they are contacting you first, it’s a scam. Pure and simple. There are legitimate credit counselors in your area. Do the research if you need their services. You can’t afford not to.