How do you find a legitimate credit counselor?August 6, 2012: 6:30 AM ET
I am about $10,000 in debt on my credit card. Who can I trust to help me get out of debt? How can I avoid giving my information to a scam artist or someone who isn't going to get me the best deal possible? — Katie
If all of your debt is on a single credit card, contact your credit card company, suggests Leslie Linfield, executive director of the Portland, Maine-based Institute for Financial Literacy. Many companies have internal debt management programs that can help you. Otherwise, you'll need to find a third party credit counseling organization.
There are three trade associations for the industry: the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (aiccca.org), the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (nfcc.org) and the Association of Credit Counseling Professionals (accpros.org). Each maintains on its website a directory of members you can search. But Linfield warns that belonging to one of these groups doesn't guarantee quality of service. You'll still need to watch for hidden fees, sometimes called "contributions," which can sink you further into debt.
Once you've gathered a short list of possible candidates, call your state consumer affairs office to make sure they are properly licensed in your state. Next, investigate whether any consumer complaints have been filed against them with the local consumer protection agency or your state Attorney General's office.
Now the real work begins: Ask each company what fees and services they offer. Any claims that sound too good to be true should be red flags. "If they promise you they can get a reduced rate that another organization can't, cut your debt in half or fix your credit rating," Linfield says, "run for the hills."
— Marc Mewshaw
Got a question for the Help Desk? Send it to email@example.com.