Q&A: Managing debt with credit counseling

Dear Liz: I contacted a company to help me resolve my debt. They present themselves as a nonprofit organization and seem to offer a possible solution by reducing the interest rate I’m paying on my credit cards. How do I determine the trustworthiness of this and other such organizations?

Answer: If the organization is affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, then it’s a legitimate credit counseling agency. These agencies offer debt management plans that typically allow people to pay off their credit card debt over three to five years at reduced interest rates. People enrolled in the plans make monthly payments to the counseling agency, which then distributes the money to the creditors. Fees vary by agency, but the cost to set up a plan is typically less than $50 and the monthly fee around $35.

Debt management plans are not loans or debt consolidation. They’re also not a way to settle your debt for less than you owe. They’re a potential solution for people to pay off what they owe over several years.

Credit counseling got a bad name in the 1990s when a bunch of companies masquerading as nonprofits got into the business of offering debt management plans. Many siphoned off money that was meant for creditors or failed to pay creditors at all. The IRS cracked down and cleared out many of the worst offenders.

You can visit www.nfcc.org to see if the agency is listed and to get its contact information. (It’s best to get the information directly from NFCC, just in case you’re dealing with a copycat.)

Before you sign up with a credit counselor, though, you also should consult with a bankruptcy attorney. Credit counselors may try to steer you away from bankruptcy, and you’ll want an attorney to review your situation to help you understand if bankruptcy may be a better option.

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