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Credit and debt counseling organizations come in two primary varieties: Nonprofit and for-profit. The not-for-profit organizations are generally organized as tax-exempt corporations under IRC Section 501(c)(3). The for-profit organizations are, of course, trying to make a buck or two (not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
These organizations will generally seek to negotiate a settlement with your creditors. For example, a creditor may agree to forgive a part of your debt, provided you enroll in a credit reduction program. These organizations typically get their revenue via a percentage of the debt actually collected, commissions or fees from originating a debt consolidation loan, and direct fees paid by the consumer.
However, under federal law, there are strict limitations on precisely how these organizations are allowed to operate, and the circumstances under which they are allowed to collect money from you (the consumer).
Watch out for the following red flags:
Many companies will suggest you take out a debt consolidation loan to pay off your credit cards and other consumer debt. A lot of times, this loan will take the form of a home equity loan. Remember, however, that credit card debt and lots of other consumer debt is unsecured. When you take out a home equity loan to pay them off, you are exchanging an unsecured debt for a secured debt. This means that if you default on the loan, you could lose your home. This is serious business. Be extremely cautious about swapping unsecured for secured debt – particularly when your home will be on the line.
The advantage, on the other hand, is that you will generally qualify for a lower interest rate on secured debt, all other things being equal. And interest on up to $100,000 on qualifying home equity loans is tax deductible.
Sometimes you don’t have much choice. But be very aware of the potential downsides to a debt consolidation loan secured by your home. This option is generally only appropriate where the interest rate advantage is huge, where the creditors are agreeing to substantial discounts on the principal owed, and where your sources of income are very stable.
Remember, no one can legitimately “erase” correct bad information on your credit report. Only time and responsible behavior can do that. Beware of any organization who promises to “fix” your credit score by eliminating truthful information. Chances are, the claim is illegal.
Information that is inaccurate, on the other hand, can easily be stricken from your credit report. All you need to do is send a written request to the credit bureaus describing the erroneous information, and requesting the bureau to eliminate the information, or demonstrate in writing that the information is accurate. By law, they have 30 days to do so, under the terms of the Fair Credit Collections Act.
When you write them, use a registered letter, return receipt requested, and retain a copy of the letter you sent for yourself.
This is essentially what a legitimate credit repair service can do on your behalf. They will typically charge a fee for their services (though some mortgage agents will help you through this process if it helps you get a loan). However, you don’t need an intermediary to do this for you: It’s pretty straightforward to handle this yourself.
Beware of any credit restoration service that charges an up-front fee. According to the Federal Trade Commission, you shouldn’t have to pay fees to these companies until after services are provided.
Anyone who contacts you promising a loan in exchange for an up-front processing or application fee is operating in violation of federal telemarketing rules. There are some legitimate lenders who charge up-front application or processing fees – but not in conjunction with a guarantee of credit. It is illegal to guarantee issuance of a loan in exchange for an up-front fee.
It’s tough to tell the legitimate providers from the shysters and scammers out there. There are a few proven organizations that do have the respect of the lending community, and whom they work with frequently. A notable example: American Consumer Credit Counseling. They are a non-profit organization, and provide extensive debt and budgeting counseling services. Their standard budget and debt counseling services are free of charge.
They also do not lend money. If a consolidation loan is appropriate, they will refer you to an outside provider, which helps to mitigate potential conflicts of interest. These always arise when the person recommending a loan is also receiving a commission for placing the loan.
You can reach American Consumer Credit Counseling by phone, toll-free, at 1-800-769-3571.
If you do enroll in an extended debt management program, there is a one-time $39 fee – which is waived or reduced in certain circumstances, such as for active-duty military families and veterans. There is also a monthly maintenance fee of between $4 and $35.
In addition, the United States judiciary maintains a list of reputable and approved credit counseling organizations. You can find the current list here.
Occasionally, creditors will agree to “re-age” a delinquent account, if you participate in a debt management program. This means that if you make three successful timely payments with a debt management program, they will report your account to the credit bureaus as “current.” However, you can’t “re-age” an account more than twice in a five-year period.
If you need to eliminate delinquencies in a short time frame, and you can’t write a check for the full amount needed to get current, this can be a terrific option.
If your creditors accept a debt settlement for less than the full amount owed, you still have a tax issue: The IRS considers any debt forgiven to be taxable income. Creditors will send you a Form 1099-C, listing the amount forgiven, and send a copy to the IRS. However, until the end of 2012, any debt forgiven on a mortgage covering your personal residence is not taxable. Forgiven debt is also not taxable if you are insolvent – meaning your total debts exceed your total assets.