Clearwater, FL – April 30, 2010 – Better Business Bureau is warning financially troubled families to beware of misleading debt settlement companies that claim they can easily reduce or eliminate credit card debt. Since the start of the recession, BBB has received more than 3,500 complaints from individuals, including many who paid hundreds of dollars in upfront fees to debt settlement companies but only fell deeper into debt.
“There are many families being lured into believing that debt settlement is an easy fix and that their credit card debt will just disappear,” said Karen Nalven, BBB President. “However, the process does not work for many consumers, it has potentially serious negative consequences, and should primarily be used as a last resort to avoid bankruptcy.”
Consumers from all 50 states have filed complaints with BBB about debt settlement companies since the recession began in late 2007. In addition to BBB, angry customers are also taking their complaints to their state Attorney General. Attorneys General from Florida and many other states have taken action against companies in this industry.
Some practices by debt settlement companies are also coming under fire on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the The Debt Settlement Consumer Protection Act which seeks to “protect consumers from deceptive, abusive and financially injurious practices rampant in the debt settlement industry.”
Typically with debt settlement (also referred to as debt negotiation), the consumer pays an upfront fee to the debt settlement firm with the understanding that the company will try to negotiate a settlement with creditors for less than what is owed. The debt settlement business works with the consumer to establish a plan for the consumer to put money into an account administered by the debt settlement company or a third party, and that money is used to pay any negotiated settlements. It will usually take at least six months to a year before there is enough money to start settling accounts, and during that time the consumer will typically not be making payments to creditors. Not only does this put the consumer at risk of having creditors file garnishments or other legal actions, his or her credit rating will likely suffer as a result of not making required monthly payments.
Complainants to BBB allege that instead of having their debt settled as promised, they were driven deeper into debt and sometimes sued by their creditors—which led to mounting legal fees—and had their wages garnished. Some complainants decided after making several months worth of payments that they did not want to proceed with the debt settlement process, but the debt settlement company did not give them their money back which they had set aside—in one case as much as $15,000.
BBB warns families that are drowning in debt to look for the following red flags when considering getting help from a debt settlement or negotiation firm:
Before enlisting the help of a debt settlement company, BBB recommends that struggling consumers:
More advice on managing credit and paying down high balances is available through BBB’s Managing Credit – Made Simpler at www.bbb.org/credit-management/.