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Finding Credible Credit Counseling

Kimberly Lankford

Are there some credit counseling companies that actually are good, and how does one go about finding the good ones?



With all the hype about credit counseling/debt management companies, are there some that are actually good, and how does one go about finding the good ones?

There are some great credit counseling agencies, which can help you review your debts, set a budget and negotiate with your creditors. If you've been paying only the minimum on your credit card, missing payments, or having trouble digging out of debt, then meeting with a good credit counselor may finally help you shake off your money troubles.

But the quality can vary enormously from firm to firm. Some have been fined by the Federal Trade Commission and IRS for charging hidden fees, misrepresenting their nonprofit status and offering questionable advice that helps the creditors more than the people who sought counseling.

There is, however, a new resource that can help you find a reputable credit counseling agency. The U.S. Trustee's office (part of the Department of Justice) has been vetting credit-counseling agencies and lists approved firms on its Web site (currently 132 firms, although the U.S. Trustee's office continues to approve more firms). The Web site also includes the agencies' contact information and Web sites and tells whether they do business in person, over the phone or through the Internet. This resource can help you find a reputable counselor that can help you get your finances back on track.

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However, with so many agencies to choose from, you'll need to do some additional vetting yourself. A good agency should charge $50 or less (budget counseling sessions generally cost less than $20), meet with you for 60 to 90 minutes, review your situation and offer budgeting advice first.

Beware of agencies that put too much pressure on signing up for a debt management program, where you pay all your bills to the agency and they pay your creditors. These programs can help some people but aren't always the best solution, and some agencies focus on them too much because they're paid by the creditors to sign up people.

You also can search for credit counseling agencies through their two major trade associations -- the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.

For more advice about finding a credit counseling agency and problems with some firms, see the Federal Trade Commission's advice for choosing a credit counselor.

Got a question? Ask Kim at askkim@kiplinger.com.



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