Consumers in financial distress are often focused on one thing— relief. After all, the mailbox is full of collection letters, and the answering machine is filled with calls from those you owe. Money is tight and it seems as though there’s no way out. When you are at your lowest, you hear a commercial that says you can be debt free in a matter of months. The offer that sounds so tempting may be from a debt settlement company. Is it too good to be true, or a real way out?
The NFCC suggests that consumers consider the following and ask the right questions when considering using a debt settlement company:
- What is debt settlement? Debt settlement can also be known by other names such as debt arbitration or debt negotiation. It is a process through which some creditors accept less than the full amount owed, yet consider the debt as paid. Some settlement companies advertise that they can settle your debts for a fraction of what you owe with a program typically lasting between two and four years.
- If I don’t have the money to repay my debts, where does the money come from for the settlement? Some settlement companies advise consumers to stop paying their creditors and instead begin making deposits into a debt settlement account. Typically, the settlement company will promise to attempt to negotiate a settlement with a creditor once the consumer has accumulated enough money in the settlement account, a process that could take years, although the exact length of time will vary with circumstances. While the consumer is paying into the debt settlement account, typically no payments are being made to creditors. That means the balance on the account can continue to grow as interest and various penalty fees are charged by the creditor. As a result, many consumers find that they owe more than when they started the debt settlement program and their credit has suffered because of the failure to make any payments to the creditors. Even worse, some consumers find themselves facing legal actions such as wage garnishment or a default judgment as a result of a debt settlement program.
- How is settlement reported on my credit report? Generally, debts paid off as part of a negotiated settlement will show “Paid by Settlement” on a consumer’s credit report. If you later apply for new loans, the prospective lenders will know that a debt paid by settlement means that your repayment did not cover the total debt that you had accumulated and that your creditor accepted a lesser amount.
- What happens to my credit score? Your credit score is based on information contained in your credit report, with the highest consideration given to how you repaid prior debts. If you fail to repay your debts as promised, which would include missing payments or settling debts for only a portion of what you owed, it is likely to show on your credit report and substantially lower your credit score.
- What are the fees charged by debt settlement companies? Different settlement companies have different fee structures. One model is that the settlement company’s fee will be a percentage of your total debt. For example, if you owe $30,000 and if the settlement company charges you 15 percent of the total debt, you would pay them $4,500 in fees.
- Am I responsible for any part of the forgiven debt? Once a creditor agrees to accept a settlement, it will generally end efforts to collect the original amount. However, if the amount of the forgiven debt totals $600 or more, you may owe income taxes on the forgiven amount.
In most cases, consumers who think debt settlement may be the right answer to their situation should be aware that they can work directly with their creditor to arrange a settlement. The NFCC stands ready to help any consumer struggling to repay debt. Trained and certified counselors can help you evaluate the debt resolution option that is right for you. Your road to financial freedom can start today.