The Federal Trade Commission offers unbiased tips for choosing a credit counselor and consumer credit counseling service. To summarize, the agency makes the following recommendations.
Living paycheck to paycheck? Worried about debt collectors? Can’t seem to develop a workable budget, let alone save money for retirement? If this sounds familiar, you may want to consider the services of a consumer credit counseling agency. Many credit counseling organizations are nonprofit and work with you to solve your financial problems. But beware – just because an organization says it is “nonprofit” doesn’t guarantee that its services are free or affordable, or that its services are legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling organizations charge high fees, some of which may be hidden, or urge consumers to make “voluntary” contributions that cause them to fall deeper into debt.
Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the Internet, or on the telephone. Some people prefer face-to-face counseling, but choose what is right for you. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family may also be good sources of information and referrals.
Reputable consumer credit counseling organizations advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and usually offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.
A reputable consumer credit counseling agency should send you free information about itself and the services it provides without requiring you to provide any details about your situation. If a firm doesn’t do that, consider it a red flag and go elsewhere for help.
Once you’ve developed a list of potential consumer credit counseling agencies, check them out with your state Attorney General, local consumer protection agency, and Better Business Bureau. They can tell you if consumers have filed complaints about them. (But even if there are no complaints about them, it’s not a guarantee that they’re legitimate.)
The United States Trustee Program also keeps a list of consumer credit counseling agencies that have been approved to provide pre-bankruptcy counseling. You can find a state-by-state list of government-approved organizations at www.usdoj.gov/ust. After you’ve done your background investigation, it’s time for the most important research – you should interview the final “candidates.”
Here are some questions to ask to help you find the best consumer credit counseling agency for you.