Using a settlement company to help you dig out from underneath burdensome debt may sound appealing, but it may leave you worse off than when you started, according to new research.
A report from the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit research group, finds that consumers who sign on with for-profit debt settlement companies find their debts grow about 20 percent on average before a settlement, with no guarantee that such a settlement will be reached.
“Our concern is that this is another way of taking advantage of people who are in dire straits to begin with,” said Ellen Harnick, senior policy counsel at the center and co-author of the report.
Debt settlement companies offer to substantially reduce the amount owed by negotiating with credit card companies and other creditors. But to use a settlement company’s services, a client generally must stop making payments on the debt. Instead, money is deposited in a dedicated account; the funds are used to pay creditors, and the settlement company, if and when a settlement is reached. (The fee is often a percentage of the debt, or a percentage of the amount saved by the settlement.) However, defaulting on a debt means additional interest and late fees accrue on the account. Some card companies will not deal with settlement companies, and may file a lawsuit when payments stop.
The higher balance, plus the debt settlement fees and potential taxes owed on amounts that are forgiven, can substantially whittle down any savings realized if a settlement is eventually reached, the report finds. Consumers must settle at least two-thirds of their debt to benefit from debt settlement, but many are unable to get that result, the report said. The average debt-settlement customer has six debts totaling $30,000.
Typically, consumers consider debt settlement as an alternative to filing for personal bankruptcy. But Edward C. Boltz, a bankruptcy lawyer in Durham, N.C., says he sees clients who have ended up seeking bankruptcy protection despite having gone through debt settlement. Settlement companies usually will negotiate credit card debt, but often may not include medical or tax debt in their services. So clients who have a broad mix of debt may not get the relief they need, Mr. Boltz said.
It is also difficult to determine the likelihood of success in obtaining a settlement. The new report cites research from the federal Government Accountability Office, which noted that the percentage of clients successfully completing a debt settlement program was in the “single digits.”
Federal rules that took effect in 2010 bar debt settlement companies from charging fees upfront; they may collect a fee only after a settlement is reached and a payment is made under the agreed-upon plan.
The report notes that the American Fair Credit Council, a trade group representing debt settlement companies, has said that success rates had improved since the new rules took effect. A council representative did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
Data from Colorado, however, which regulates debt settlement companies that operate in the state, suggests any change in success rates since the upfront-fee rule took effect is “marginal,” the report said.
Here are some questions about debt settlement:
■ Will using a debt settlement company affect my credit score?
Yes, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. When you stop paying your debts and your accounts become delinquent, that information is reported to the major credit rating agencies and can harm your credit score. The delinquency may remain on your credit report for seven years.
■ Is debt settlement the same as a debt management plan offered by credit counseling companies?
Credit counseling agencies — which are often nonprofit organizations partly funded by credit card companies — obtain upfront agreements with creditors that allow a debt to be paid off over three to five years. Typically, the creditor agrees to a lower interest rate and waives penalty fees, but does not eliminate any of the principal owed. This option still requires that significant monthly payments be made, however, so not everyone may qualify. The Justice Department maintains a list of credit counseling agencies that are approved to provide pre-bankruptcy counseling on its website.
■ Are there any other options if I can’t pay my debt?
The Center for Responsible Lending suggests that you try to talk with your creditors yourself, especially if you have not become delinquent yet. Some companies have programs to reduce your principal or lower your interest rate if you can document a hardship, like losing a job.
If you cannot see any way to pay your debts, you may file for personal bankruptcy protection — a serious step that discharges your debt but impairs your credit rating and your ability to borrow for seven to 10 years, depending on the type of filing.
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