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Tips for choosing a credit counselor

Not sure how to choose a credit-counseling agency or debt-management company? These guidelines from Bankrate.com can help.

Tip No. 1 is to comparison shop. You'll want to check out services and fees carefully.

"Just like everything else, shop around," says Travis Plunkett, legislative director at Consumer Federation of America. "You should be able to get decent, affordable credit counseling without paying several hundred dollars a month." Get the low down on fees from the get-go. Avoid companies that charge a large fee and promise to return it upon completion of a debt-management program.

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"Get the facts," says Edward J. Johnson III, president of the Better Business Bureau in Washington, D.C. "Everything should be disclosed upfront. The costs of service should be straightforward and reasonable." Don't forget to ask about services beyond a debt-management plan and debt consolidation. Is a free budgeting session available? What kinds of fees are charged for any additional counseling services?

"The service should go beyond consolidation of debt," Johnson says. "Providing budgeting advice and education is also important."

How is the counseling agency or company funded? Be aware that not every nonprofit agency has your best interests at heart. Some nonprofit counseling agencies charge high fees and others are run by people looking to line their own pockets.

"Nonprofit doesn't mean cheap or affordable, or even good," Plunkett says. "We ask people to delve beneath the surface." Check the reliability and reputation of the company.

Contact the Better Business Bureau to see if the firm has had any consumer complaints. Check with your state attorney general's office or other state consumer agencies to find out if there are any pending legal investigations.

Is the agency accredited through an independent, third-party association such as the Council on Accreditation? Are counselors certified? If not, what kind of training do they have? Members of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies are all accredited agencies with certified counselors.

How much time is the agency willing to spend with you to discuss your particular financial situation? Don't let anyone pressure you into a quick decision.

"Do they spend a lot of time with you?" Plunkett asks. "Are they shoving a debt management plan at you within the first 10 minutes?" No matter what anyone says, there are no quick fixes when it comes to credit problems. Be skeptical of companies that promise otherwise.

"There's no magic bullet," Johnson says. "There's no quick, easy fix. They're going to have to be patient."

And you don't need to pay a credit counselor to receive a new payment plan from a creditor. You could simply call a credit card company and ask for help on your own. All they can do is say no.

"You can call these banks directly," says Eric Friedman, an investigative administrator with Montgomery County Consumer Affairs in Maryland. "They may have an in-house program that would do a debt reduction."

-- Posted: Jan. 6, 2003

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