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Before you sign up with a financial services company
Debt services typically charge a percentage of a customer’s debt or a monthly program fee. And not all companies are transparent about these costs — or about drawbacks that can negatively affect your credit score. Depending on the company you work with, you might pay other fees for third-party settlement services or setting up new accounts, which can leave you in a worse situation than when you signed up.
Consider alternatives before signing up with a company:
- Payment extensions may be available. Companies you owe may be willing to extend your payment due date or put you on a longer payment plan if you ask.
- Nonprofit credit counseling is typically free or low cost. Look for debt services help from nonprofit organizations like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
- Negotiating a settlement can reduce the overall cost. If you can manage to pay a portion of the bill, offer the collection agency a one-time payment as a settlement. Collection agencies are often willing to accept a lower payment on your debt to close the account.
Debt consolidation sometimes refers to a wide scope of products and services, from low-interest personal loans to help negotiations with your creditors. Some of the solutions you might find with one of these providers include:
- Debt consolidation loans are personal loans you use to pay off higher-interest accounts. These can help you save on interest and get out of debt faster. But you need good credit and a steady income to qualify in most cases.
- Credit counseling offers free or low-cost financial advice to individuals who need help managing their finances. You can check if your bank or credit union offers credit counseling or browse a list of credit counselors managed by the Department of Justice.
- Financial services can involve some negotiation with your creditors to either pay down your debt as a lump sum or with a modified rates and terms. To qualify for this type of service, you often need to prove that your debt is causing financial hardship.
- Bankruptcy should be your last choice. It stays on your credit for seven to 10 years and can significantly impact your ability to borrow. However, it eliminates a large majority of your debt with no payment plan.
In most cases, financial services that negotiate with your creditors are legit. But you should avoid signing up with a company that doesn’t meet federal requirements or doesn’t provide much information on its website.
How will it affect my credit?
Paying down your debt should have a positive effect on your credit in the long run. But the immediate effects vary. A debt consolidation loan can have a positive impact on your credit right away, since you’ll be able to pay down your debt faster. But if you miss a payment, it will hurt your credit.
Credit counseling and financial service companies will have little to no impact on your credit score — but settling your accounts can. If your company tells you to stop paying your creditors, you may face a lower credit score, more collection calls and a lawsuit once your debt is sold to collections.
If a lawsuit is successful, a debt collection agency may be able to garnish your wages for the amount owed, which could throw a wrench in the debt relief process. Carefully consider the potential downsides to a financial service company before signing up for a program.
- Expert advice from debt professionals
- Potentially reduce interest or total debt
- Lower your monthly debt payments
- Can hurt your finances even more if you don’t complete a program
- Forgiven debt considered taxable income
- Creditors may pursue legal action for missed payments
Consider the following factors when comparing financial services companies:
- Accreditation is a strong start. Most legitimate companies that negotiate with creditors are accredited with either the American Fair Credit Council (AFCC) or the International Association of Professional Debt Arbitrators (IAPDA).
- Check that it’s not on the FTC’s list of banned companies. Because there are scams in the debt relief world, you should check the FTC list of companies and people banned from providing these negotiation or settlement services before you sign up for any program.
- Transparency is also a good indicator. If you can’t find vital information like how much a program costs, how fees are calculated and how long the company has been in business, consider working with another provider.
- Costs should be within a reasonable range. Financial services companies often charge a fee for either a percentage of the total amount of debt you have or the amount they’re able to reduce your debt by. Most credit counseling services are free, though some may charge a small fee depending on your state.
- Whether the company uses direct or indirect negotiation can be a tell. Look for a provider that negotiates with your creditors directly. Indirect negotiation is uncommon and may put your information at risk when it’s transferred between companies.
- Eligibility determines whether applying is even an option. Many companies have restrictions on your total debt balance, types of debt and where you live. And some are geared toward different credit scores and income ranges.
- Customer reviews on sites like the BBB and Trustpilot are a good place to look out for red flags and learn what you can expect from a provider.
What to know about financial services costs
While hiring a company to negotiate your debt can be helpful for a lot of people, know what you’ll have to pay before you get started.
- Fees aren’t only based on your initial debt. Fees depend on your total debt and are hard to predict. It depends on how quickly your accounts are settled, how interest accumulates, if you continue payments, whether you have late fees and more.
- A settled account is taxed as income. Any settled account with a savings of more than $600 is considered taxable income. After taxes, you could end up saving only 10% — or less.
There is a tax loophole, however: You might be exempt if your tax liabilities are greater than your assets at the time of the settlement. Talk with a tax specialist before enrolling in a settlement program to learn how this exemption might affect you.
Many companies that negotiate with creditors for a fee are legitimate. But there are scams out there. It should set off alarm bells if you a see a company committing any of these offenses:
- It charges upfront fees for its services.
- It guarantees a specific amount of debt savings.
- It promises it can settle lawsuits and stop calls from collection agencies.
- It advertises itself as a new government program that can erase your debt.
It also pays to be aware of your state laws. Ensure that any company or attorney you’re working with holds the appropriate licenses and follows state regulations.
Student loan debt scams
The most recent government crackdown has focused on companies that claim to settle student loan accounts — one reason why most legit financial service companies won’t touch student loans.
Watch out for any offers that try to get you to sign up for a new program fast, customer service reps that ask for your login information and anyone who claims to be a representative from the Department of Education. And check out our guide to avoiding student loan debt scams for more tips on what to look out for.
You may be able to handle your debt on your own with determination and a manageable budget.
- Repayment strategies can give you a solid framework. It won’t result in a reduction to the amount you owe, but you can adopt a repayment strategy like the debt avalanche or snowball to build your budget and pay off your debts in manageable chunks.
- DIY negotiations may help you get a handle on your debt. Financial services companies negotiate on your behalf, but you can reach out to your creditors on your own. Explain your situation and see if you can lower the amount you owe or modify your repayment schedule.
If you’ve decided on settlement, consider these top debt relief companies when you’re ready to get started.
Answers to commonly asked questions about debt relief.
Does the government offer grants or programs to help manage my debt?
No, there are no federal or private grants to help individuals pay down debt. And the federal government doesn’t directly offer financial services.
But you’ll find government-approved credit counseling agencies. Avoid working with any companies advertising a “new” government debt relief program — it’s a common scam tactic designed to steal your money.
Are there options for overdue taxes?
Yes. You can work with the IRS to come up with a payment plan, reduce the amount of debt you owe or even pause collections on your debt. This service is done directly through the IRS, rather than an outside company.
Alternatively, you can take out a personal loan to pay off your tax debt if you just need to break it up into more manageable installments.
Can I use my credit cards after I’ve hired a company to negotiate down my balances?
It depends on the program, but some require you to cancel your credit cards. In some cases, if you stop making payments, your credit card companies may also cancel your cards.
You might be able to apply for additional cards after you’ve settled your accounts, but you won’t be able to use your old ones. Look into secured credit cards designed to help you rebuild your credit score.