Recently passed by Congress, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 will require people who are filing for bankruptcy to first undergo mandatory credit counseling.
This is probably not a bad idea; after all, many people with problem debt could probably benefit from credit counseling. A good credit counselor can assist clients with problem debts in establishing a repayment schedule, creating a personal budget, and learning how to avoid debt and credit problems in the future.
The problem is that with the estimated one and a half million additional people seeking credit counseling each year, there will undoubtedly be more credit "counselors" entering the market, and many of them are only interested in reaping huge profits at the expense of their clients. There are already a number of credit counseling firms working in the marketplace that advertise themselves as "nonprofit", when they actually are closely tied to for-profit debt consolidation firms. These agencies will strongly encourage their clients to consolidate debt through their partner company, and the result may be a long term loan for the client that doesn't help them at all, but reaps huge profits for the consolidation firm. How can someone who is genuinely seeking legitimate, helpful credit counseling choose a counseling agency wisely?
*Counselors should listen. If they start pitching a solution to you during the first fifteen minutes you are there, you should be suspicious. A credit counselor should be gathering information about you in order to determine how best to help you. They can't possibly know how to help if they don't understand your problem. Unless, of course, they don't care about your problem and only want to sell generic "solutions."
*Watch out for firms that want excessive fees up front. Be particularly wary of nonprofit agencies that ask for fees or "voluntary contributions" or nonprofit agencies that tell you that they cannot help you if you do not pay a fee upfront.
*Sometimes, bankruptcy is unavoidable. Watch out if the agency doesn't mention bankruptcy at all, or if they change the subject if you bring up the topic. Debt consoldators cannot make any money on bankruptcy cases, but sometimes, that's your only option.
*Shop around. Talk to several different agencies and compare what they tell you. Any agency that differs dramatically from what the other agencies are telling you should probably be avoided.
*Check with your local Better Business Bureau, and ask if they've had any complaints about the agency.
*Watch out for firms that offer quick solutions to your problems. You didn't get into financial trouble overnight, and you won't get out of financial trouble overnight. Any competent debt or credit counselor will know this and will undoubtedly tell you that working your way out of debt takes time.
*See if the agency belongs to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. Many do.
By taking a few simple precautions before agreeing to work with a credit counselor, you may save yourself a lot of grief and a lot of money later.
Charles T. Essmeier, Jr. is the owner of Retro Marketing, a firm which operates several informational Websites, including http://www.End-Your-Debt.com/ a Website devoted to information regarding credit counseling and debt consolidation.