Beware of Debt Relief Scams

The following is a guest post from Smart Military Money, a site dedicated to personal finance for veterans, servicemembers and their families.

Kudos to you if you have yet to fall deeper into debt this year.

Otherwise you likely represent a sliver of the $21.3 billion in credit that consumers accrued in March alone, according to the Federal Reserve. Whether you’ve paid off debt or spent too much this year, $21.3 billion in consumer credit better get your attention, because it undoubtedly got the attention of debt relief scammers.

veterans debt

With such a drastic monthly increase in consumer credit, scammers will try to prey on desperate consumers. Arm yourself with knowledge against these unscrupulous capitalists by following some of these tips.

Explore every option

The easiest way to avoid a debt relief scam? Don’t use a debt settlement or consolidation service. If you can get out of debt yourself—which likely means it’s not an exorbitant amount of money—then do so. You don’t need a third party.

Do your research

Once you decide to go with a debt relief service, get busy learning everything you can about the business. The National Business Reporting Bureau, Yelp and the Better Business Bureau should provide you with some insight on the business’ reputation. Also, the Internet is a wealth of knowledge, especially when it comes to disgruntled customers.

Take any negative review as a red flag. When a business or service is advising you on how to handle your money, there is no room for risk taking. Ask friends and family if they ever used a favorable service, too.

Spot a scam

Cease contact with a debt relief company if it:

  • Doesn’t tell you about the debt consolidation or settlement process as it’s being done
  • Suggests you stop paying creditors
  • Charges a large fee upfront. Charging advance fees before actually providing a debt relief service is illegal in some states.
  • Requires personal ID information—such as Social Security number or bank account number—before offering a quote

Use common sense and go with your instincts. Don’t enter into any agreements without first knowing what you’re getting into. As soon as you feel uncomfortable with a company for any reason, walk away.

Know when it’s too good to be true

Fraudulent debt relief services boast that they’ll have you debt free in weeks or that their success rate is almost 100 percent. Worse yet, a company might claim they “know people” or “have connections” that somehow eliminates your debt.

Don’t fall for it. These claims are simply ploys to attract consumers. Unfortunately, these work on desperate consumers who contributed to the overwhelming amount of debt accrued in March.

Be inquisitive and read carefully

As with any written agreement, before you sign, read it thoroughly. The tinier the print, the better you should understand it. If there’s any vague phrasing, ask for a detailed explanation. Terms and conditions of a fraudulent company are likely to stand out to you. Keep in mind that even a well-established company might toss something in your agreement that could further hurt your finances.

Final thought

Ideally you’d never need a debt relief service, but it could happen. Auto loans, mortgage payments and credit card bills can add up quick. However, the best defense against a debt relief scammer is staying out of insurmountable debt.

If you ever need help consolidating or settling debt, then keep in mind the above pointers to avoid being a victim.


Photo courtesy of walknboston via Creative Commons, Flickr.

Christian Losciale is a staff writer for Smart Military Money, a personal finance site dedicated to educating veterans, service members and their spouses. Follow Christian and his work on Google+.

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18 thoughts on “Beware of Debt Relief Scams

  1. Definitely read carefully, and certainly check the BBB site for info on the company. But take note, a prominent cable company here is not a BBB accredited business, yeah, the biggest cable provider is not apporved by the BBB. Crazy.(and I can see why, they suck). Keep that in mind!
    TB at BlueCollarWorkman recently posted..It’s Time to Speak UpMy Profile

  2. Debt consolidation is a pretty viable solution for many people, but you can easily get taken advantage of. Furthermore, a HUGE reason these companies get complaints is because consumers have unfair expectations when working with a company.

    Just because you work with a debt consolidation company doesn’t mean your creditor will work that that company. Despite that being fact, most consumers don’t understand that, so when the debt consol. company can’t work out an agreement the consumer gets upset.
    Jason @ WorkSaveLive recently posted..Recipe: Greek Quinoa SaladMy Profile

  3. There are definitely a lot of rip-off artists operating in the ‘debt relief’ area. In my experience, often the best way to pay off unsecured debt is through a Debt Management Plan (DMP) administered by a nonprofit credit counseling agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. A DMP has many, many advantages vs. the alternatives, including vs. the debtor trying to work their own debt payoff plan.
    Kurt @ Money Counselor recently posted..Driving is Expensive!My Profile

  4. I’d think this would be one of the more successful scams out there. They are really playing on people’s emotions…namely their stress and a bit of greed. They would probably welcome any extra relief and might not think the plan through. Plus if they had financial mistakes in the past, they probably aren’t the type to be particularly careful. So as consumer debt continues to get out of control, I would think this scam would just become more and more prevalent.
    Modest Money recently posted..Buying Your First Car: Learn the Five C’s of Car BuyingMy Profile

  5. I’m a little perplexed by some of the content in this guest post so let me address them if I may. First, you say the best way to avoid a scam is not to use a debt settlement or consolidation service and then in the next paragraph you say ‘once you decide to go with a debt relief service’? The part I agree with the most is when you say in your ‘Final Thought’ section, ‘Ideally you’d never need a debt relief service, but it could happen.’

    First, let me start with a simple premise; what dictates how debt is negotiated and repaid is what’s inside your wallet, not what a bill collector or collection department demands you pay. Let me clarify; you must create a budget with the goal of making sure you can make ends meet on the basics for you and your family first meaning housing, food, health care, insurance, and education as the FTC website points out. In other words, the budget must be truthful, believable and focused on necessities.

    Depending on how many debts you have to settle and how you prioritize their repayment, you can now make a substantiated and quantifiable offer to settle the debt that’s honest with the goal of avoiding bankruptcy. Simply put; you need to show that if they don’t help and accept this honest plan where you can pay back a portion of the debt– everyone loses. You really don’t need a service for this.

    However, if you’re not disciplined enough to create a workable budget and stick to it, can’t work out a repayment plan with your creditors, or can’t keep track of mounting bills then…by all means, you should seek professional help and the rest of your post is spot on. At the end of the day, we are all amateur consumers! Get educated – Take Action!
    Lou Rodriguez recently posted..This site will be funtional soon. Stay tuned! 🙂My Profile

    • Lou,
      I see your concern. To clarify, I do not want to dictate readers’ choices. So yes, I was suggesting the best way to avoid these scams is to avoid any debt relief. But there are consumers who probably had a great experience with a scrupulous debt relief service.

      I agree with you that consumers need to practice discipline and budget carefully. That’s the best way to avoid a debt relief scam: stay out of debt.

      Thanks for reading, Lou.

      -Christian L.
      Smart Military Money recently posted..Military Personal Finance Roundup: May 21-25My Profile

      • I would prefer to use the word “educate” rather than dictate. The fact is that when it comes to credit or debt issues, there is nothing that any service can do for you that you can’t do for yourself.

        As I said previously, a persons wallet will dictate the outcome of any debt settlement and for those reading this post and these comments who might find themselves in debt, remember this refrain; your lack of action will hurt you more than your lack of resources! – Get Educated – Take Action!
        Lou Rodriguez recently posted..This site will be funtional soon. Stay tuned! 🙂My Profile

  6. Great article, with many very good points.

    One thing I would like to discuss a bit is your point to avoid a debt relief company if they “Suggest you stop paying creditors.” However, that is exactly how the debt settlement process works. You stop paying creditors, your account becomes delinquent, thus putting the creditor in a position to be more agreeable to a settlement. They won’t be much in the mood to settle for less than the full amount if you’ve always made your payment on time, and your account is current.

    When a person is seeking debt relief, debt settlement is usually recommended for people who simply can no longer afford to pay their bills. Thus not paying the creditor allows them to instead put money into an escrow account which is then used to pay settlements as they are negotiated.

    The other thing I would like to address is the comment from Kurt that “often the best way to pay off unsecured debt is through a Debt Management Plan (DMP) administered by a nonprofit credit counseling agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.” My comment is regarding “nonprofit.” Non profit companies often use that status to portray an image that they are helping people get out of debt without making any money, and they’re doing it just out of the goodness of their heart. In reality, it’s just a trick. Non-profit agencies qualify for “fair share” payments from creditors. What that means is that for every customer the non-profit agency brings to the creditor, they get a kickback. That’s partially how they generate revenue and stay in business. That could be seen as a conflict of interest…..being paid by the very industry that you are trying to help customers become unshackled from.

    For profit credit counseling agencies can not take fair share payments…thus they generally have a little higher per month administration fee passed to the customer….but no perceived conflict of interest.
    Travis @debtchronicles recently posted..What’s your 0.2?My Profile

  7. Honestly I have heard so many negative things about debt consolidation companies that I would be to wary to ever try one.

    • There are good, reputable debt relief companies out there, Katie. My wife and I enrolled in a Debt Management Plan in July of 2009 with over 100K of debt. We’re now 35 payments into a 60 month plan and have paid off over half of our debt. Without our DMP, and our debt relief provider we would probably have gone bankrupt, sold our home, and ended up in financial ruin..

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