Debt relief companies can help you build a path to debt freedom. They offer a range of services, from helping you budget to negotiating your balance down. But watch out for companies that guarantee results or won’t disclose the cost up front.
Debt relief companies typically charge a percentage of a customer’s debt or a monthly program fee for their services. And they aren’t always transparent about these costs or drawbacks that can negatively affect your credit score. 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 debt relief company:
Payment extensions. 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. Look for free debt-management help from nonprofit organizations like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Debt settlement. 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.
What services do debt relief companies offer?
Most debt relief companies offer a combination of services designed to set you on a debt-free path — and keep you there.
Want to find representation for bankruptcy proceedings.
Credit counseling is a service offered by nonprofit agencies. These services include workshops, courses and one-on-one sessions to help you come up with a budget, manage spending and improve your credit score. You can find a credit counseling agency near you on the Department of Justice’s website.
Watch out: Not all credit counseling agencies are legit. Make sure to sign up with a government-approved agency.
Debt consolidation involves taking out a loan or balance transfer credit card to pay off your current balances and move them into one. It’s a way to lower your rates, reduce monthly payments and have just one monthly repayment to worry about. You can find a debt consolidation loan through a personal loan provider.
Watch out: Some debt relief companies use this term to refer to debt management or debt settlement. Find out what exactly a company is referring to before signing any paperwork.
With a debt management plan, a credit counseling agency negotiates with your creditors to lower your interest rates or monthly payments. You agree to begin paying off your debts through the agency with an affordable monthly payment — usually over three to five years — while the agency continues to pay your creditors on your behalf.
Watch out: You typically have to close your credit card accounts during the program. And missing a payment can get you kicked out.
Debt settlement or negotiation
Debt settlement or negotiation companies connect you with a specialist who negotiates with your creditors to reduce the amount you owe in exchange for a one-time payment. The agency pays off this negotiated amount, and then you repay the agency through monthly payments over three to five years.
Legitimate debt settlement companies charge a percentage of your enrolled debt as a fee, typically 20% of the amount.
Watch out: The majority of customers never complete debt settlement programs and end up in an even worse situation.
No legitimate debt relief company would attempt to steer you toward the bankruptcy process before exploring other options. But they can help you find a bankruptcy lawyer in your area if it’s a viable last resort.
Watch out: Bankruptcy can stay on your credit report for up to 10 years and disqualifies you from many financial products and services.
How can I benefit from debt relief?
Debt relief isn’t a sure thing and each service serves a different purpose.
Expert advice. Legit debt relief services let you hear from experts that have dealt with situations like yours before.
Lower monthly expenses. A major part of debt relief programs is making sure your repayments fit into your budget.
Potential savings. Debt consolidation, management and settlement can reduce your interest or even how much you owe.
Bankruptcy alternative. Successfully completing a program can help you avoid that negative line on your credit report.
Debt relief or bankruptcy?
You’ve probably heard that bankruptcy should be used as a last resort because it stays on your credit report for up to 10 years. But debt settlement and other debt relief options might also damage your credit score. And there’s no guarantee they will work, making them an even riskier move.
Unless you’re just looking to sign up for a few budgeting workshops, the services offered by debt relief companies can land you in a worse situation than you started. Potential risks to consider depend on what type of debt relief option you sign up for.
You might not finish your program. Only around 10% of people who enroll in debt relief programs actually complete them. If you fail to complete the program, you might have to file for bankruptcy.
You might not save as much as you expect. Settled debt is usually considered taxable income. And once you factor in fees and interest that accumulated while you were in the program, you might not save as much as you thought you would. You could end up even paying more.
There can be hidden fees. Some debt relief providers rely on servicing companies to manage your repayments. These companies might charge a fee, which the debt relief provider might not disclose when you sign up.
You could get sued. Some companies say it’s OK to stop paying your creditors. This is risky advice because the debt may be sold to a collections agency. And if you don’t pay the collections agency, you could face a lawsuit.
What to know about debt settlement costs
While debt settlement can be helpful for a lot of people, know what you’ll have to pay before you get started.
Fees aren’t based only on your initial debt. Fees depend on your total debt and are hard to predict. It depends on how quickly your debts are settled, how interest accumulates, if you continue payments, whether you have late fees and more.
Debt settlement counts as income. Any settled debt 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 debt settlement program to learn how this exemption might affect you.
Aren’t debt relief companies a scam?
Some debt relief companies are scams, but not all of them. The federal government has made an effort to crack down on scammers since 2010. It’s easier to find a legit credit counseling agency than any other type of debt relief company — they’re mostly nonprofit and the Department of Justice has already done most of the work for you by compiling a government-approved list.
4 signs of a debt relief scam
It should set off alarm bells if you a see a company committing any of these offenses that are illegal for any debt relief company:
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.
Student loan debt relief scams
The most recent government crackdown has focused on student loan debt relief scams — one reason why most legit debt relief companies won’t touch student loans.
One key sign of a student debt relief scam is when companies charge upfront fees before processing your application. Many also reach out to you and use pressuring sales tactics to get you to sign up.
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 relief scams to find even more tips on what to look out for.
Is debt relief legal in my state?
Most states require debt relief companies to get a license, file a bond with the state or both. Many also have rules restricting what types of services debt relief companies can offer and capping fees. Because of this, some debt relief companies may not be available in your state.
The states a company operates in can change along with the laws — reach out to make sure it’s currently operating in your state before signing up.
Usually, yes — but that doesn’t mean they’re a good idea.
After the FTC regulations in 2010, some debt relief companies restructured themselves as law firms, which don’t have to comply with state or federal rules. There are some legit law firms out there, but it’s a good idea to check for common red flags — like charging fees before settling debt — before working with one.
Consider the following factors when comparing debt relief companies:
Eligibility. Many companies have restrictions on your total debt balance, types of debt and where you live. And some debt relief companies are geared toward different credit scores and income ranges.
Costs. Debt relief companies often charge a fee that’s 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.
Transparency. Can you find all of the information you need online? Can customer service answer additional questions? If you can’t find vital information like how much it’ll cost beforehand, consider working with another company.
Accreditation. Most legit debt relief companies are accredited with either the American Fair Credit Council (AFCC), the International Association of Professional Debt Arbitrators (IAPDA) or the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
Customer reviews. Online review sites like the BBB and Trustpilot can be a great place to look out for red flags and learn what you can expect from a debt relief company.
How medical debt relief works
Handling past-due medical bills isn’t quite the same as unsecured loans or credit card debt. While it works a lot like unsecured debt, there are additional steps you can take like negotiating with your provider, signing up for a hardship plan and reaching out for help from a nonprofit. Consider these options before taking more dramatic steps like debt settlement or bankruptcy.
How to sign up for debt relief
Think debt relief might be right for you? Follow these steps to get started:
Evaluate your debt. How much debt do you have? Is it secured or unsecured? What are the rates and fees?
Consider credit counseling if you’re unsure. Credit counseling lets you weigh all of your options with an expert.
Compare companies. Do thorough research to make sure the company is legit and the right choice for you.
Speak with a representative. Either call or set up a meeting with a representative to thoroughly go over the process. They should give you instructions on how to proceed.
I signed up. Now what?
Now it’s up to you to complete your program. Keep an eye on your balances and stay in touch with your point of contact. Be sure to reach out if you have any questions or are unsure about how something works.
5 ways you can make debt relief a smart choice
It takes self control and persistence to successfully complete a debt relief program. Here are a few tips that may be able to help:
Avoid taking on more debt. It might be difficult to avoid spending if you’re enrolled in a debt relief program, but many companies require you to close your accounts.
Watch your credit score and report. Know what to expect and monitor your credit report for any irregularities. In general, debt settlement programs can cause your credit score to take a dive. Debt management shouldn’t affect your score, but you might see a line on your report indicating you’re paying off a debt through credit counseling. Other types of debt relief shouldn’t affect your credit score or report at all.
Continue paying your creditors. If you have the means, continue to make at least the minimum payments. This will keep interest and late fees from piling up, as well as harassing calls from collection agencies and potential lawsuits at bay.
Make sure everything adds up correctly. Do your fees match up with your original agreement? If you see anything out of the ordinary, call your debt relief company. If the numbers don’t add up, you may need to re-evaulate your company and find a different solution.
Take advantage of free resources. Credit counseling agencies and other debt relief companies often provide tools to help you stick to a budget or rebuild your credit score. Use them to get back on track faster.
Debt relief alternatives
You don’t necessarily need to sign up for debt relief services to get out of debt. You can also do it on your own by paying off your debt strategically or negotiating down your balance.
The avalanche method. Pay off your debts by tackling the ones with highest interest first. You could end up saving a lot of money — especially on short-term loans where interest builds up fast if you don’t pay them off.
The snowball method. Get quick wins by clearing your smallest debts first. The advantage is that smaller loans won’t get a chance to grow into bigger, unmanageable loans. But it could cost more than the avalanche method in the long run.
Negotiate your debt on your own
If you have the stomach for difficult conversations, you might want to take up negotiating your debt on your own. To do this, call up the people you owe money to, tell them you can’t pay your balance in the time you have and then ask for better repayment terms or even a reduction on what you owe.
File for bankruptcy
If you’re unable to renegotiate your debt, you may have to declare bankruptcy. If you’re going to do this, hire a lawyer to help you out with the process. And know that your credit and ability to borrow will be affected for many years.
Ask an expert: What should I do before I begin paying back debt?
Founder of personal finance blog Arrest Your Debt
First and foremost, you need to make sure you have a monthly budget. It’s amazing how much money we can waste on a monthly basis if we don’t make a conscious effort to intentionally spend our money. Next, you need to fully fund an emergency savings account with $1,500 to $2,000. This will keep you from going further into debt when life issues arise, like an unplanned vehicle repair.
Debt relief encompasses a wide scope of services, from debt negotiations with your creditors to debt management tools. Avoid signing up with a company that doesn’t meet federal requirements or otherwise rubs you the wrong way. And make sure you’ve exhausted other options like debt consolidation loans before taking any risky steps.
Frequently asked questions
It depends on the type of debt relief you’re participating in. Talking with a credit counseling agency shouldn’t affect your ability to use existing credit cards. But a debt settlement or debt management program might require you to cancel your credit cards or could result in your credit card companies canceling your cards.
You might be able to apply for additional cards after you’ve finished your debt relief program, but you won’t be able to use your old ones. Look into secured credit cards designed to help you rebuild your credit score.
If your mortgage is canceled, you might not have to pay income taxes on up to $2 million of that canceled debt, according to this 2007 law. However, not everyone can qualify. Contact a tax specialist to make sure you meet all criteria.
No, but you’ll find government-approved credit counseling agencies. Avoid any debt relief companies advertising a “new” government debt relief program — it’s a common scam tactic designed to steal your money.
No, foundations and government programs don’t offer grants to individuals.
Debt forgiveness is one result of negotiation with your creditor, like a credit card company or loan provider. With debt forgiveness, your creditor agrees that you don’t have to pay back a portion or all of your debt.
Debt forgiveness is not without consequence, however. It can come with expensive fees, raise your tax bracket, damage your credit and more.
Anna Serio is a trusted loans expert who's published more than 800 articles on Finder to help Americans strengthen their financial literacy. A former editor of a newspaper in Beirut, Anna writes about personal, student, business and car loans. Today, digital publications like Fundera, Business.com, and ValueWalk feature her professional commentary, and she earned an Expert Contributor in Finance badge from review site Best Company in 2020.
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