The era of easy credit has left more Americans than ever struggling with overwhelming debt and few options for escaping.
Rather than filing for bankruptcy, many consumers seek credit counseling or visit a debt settlement firm.
But, according to the Washington Post, more and more people are finding that unscrupulous firms are cheating them out of their last dollars rather than helping them escape debt.
What Is Debt Settlement?
Debt settlement is a bankruptcy alternative that, in theory, works like this:
- You contact a settlement agency: You’ve determined that your debts are a bit beyond your control, so you seek the services of a debt settlement firm.
- You pay a fee: Because they’ll be doing you a service, most debt settlement firms require you to pay a fee upfront, before they’ve done anything.
- They work out a plan: Generally, these plans require you, the debtor, to pay a certain amount of money into an account or directly to the firm every month.
- They contact your creditors: When they do so, they bargain with them, offering to send them a certain amount of cash (generally the amount you’ve sent the company thus far) in exchange for canceling the rest of your debt.
- Your debt is considered paid: Because your creditors “settled” what you owed with the firm, you will no longer owe those debts.
In reality, though, complaints to the Federal Trade Commission and other consumer protection groups show that many debt settlement firms do not operate as they claim to, and rather than help consumers eliminate debt, they keep the money paid to them and do little or nothing to contact creditors.
The scariest thing, perhaps, is that even though such actions are illegal, debt settlement scams continue to abound and seriously damage the financial wellbeing of Americans.
What You Need to Know
The best protection against debt settlement scams is knowledge. Keep in mind:
- You can negotiate with creditors: There is no law preventing you from calling each of your creditors and attempting to negotiate for lower payments or for them to excuse part of a debt. While this may be difficult or uncomfortable, it requires no special training (and may be more than a scamming debt collection company will do for you).
- Be wary of fees charged upfront: Companies that ask for money right away should raise a red flag. There are plenty of free credit counseling services offered around the country – look for one in your area.
- Bankruptcy is still an option: Some Americans think that BAPCPA, the bankruptcy law that took effect in 2005, made it extremely difficult to seek bankruptcy protection, but many sources suggest that’s not true. If you truly need help from bankruptcy, it’s likely available to you.