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Debt collection

Should I use a debt settlement service to help me deal with my debt and debt collectors?

Dealing with debt settlement companies can be risky. Some debt settlement companies promise more than they can deliver. Some of your creditors may also refuse to work with the debt settlement company you choose. In many cases, the debt settlement company will be unable to settle all of your debts.

Debt settlement companies often claim they can negotiate with your creditors to reduce the amount you owe. They often charge expensive fees. They typically encourage you to stop paying your credit card bills. If you stop paying your bills, you will incur late fees, penalty interest and other charges, and creditors will likely step up their collection efforts against you. Unless the debt settlement company settles all or most of your debts, the built up penalties and fees on the unsettled debts may wipe out any savings the debt settlement company achieves on the debts it settles. Using their services can also have a negative impact on your credit score and your ability to get credit in the future.

Tip: There could be tax consequences for debt forgiveness. If a portion of your debt is forgiven by the creditor, it could be counted as taxable income on your federal income taxes. You may want to consult a tax advisor or tax attorney to learn how forgiven debt affects your federal income tax.

Tip: Debt settlement may well leave you deeper in debt than you were when you started. Most debt settlement companies will ask you to stop paying your debts in order to get creditors to negotiate and to collect the funds required for a settlement. This can have a negative effect on your credit score and may result in the creditor or debt collector filing a lawsuit while you are collecting settlement funds. And if you stop making payments on a credit card, late fees and interest will be added to the debt each month. If you exceed your credit limit, additional fees and charges may apply. This can cause your original debt to increase.

Tip: Avoid doing business with any company that promises to settle your debt if the company:

  • Charges any fees before it settles your debts
  • Touts a "new government program" to bail out personal credit card debt
  • Guarantees it can make your debt go away
  • Tells you to stop communicating with your creditors
  • Tells you it can stop debt collection calls and lawsuits
  • Guarantees that your unsecured debts can be paid off

If you do business with a for-profit debt relief company, the company may tell you to put money in a dedicated bank account, which will be managed by a third party. You may be charged fees for using this account. See the FTC’s page on Settling Your Credit Card Debts for more information. The Federal Trade Commission’s Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibits companies that engage in telemarketing of debt settlement services from charging or collecting a fee unless they first settle, reduce or alter a debt.

An alternative to a debt settlement company is a non-profit, consumer credit counseling service. These non-profits will attempt to work with you and your creditors to develop a debt management plan that you can afford, and that can help get you out of debt. They usually will also help you develop a budget and provide other financial counseling.

Also, you may want to consider consulting a bankruptcy attorney, who may be able to provide you with your options under the law. Some bankruptcy attorneys will speak to you initially free of charge.

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