Turning to a business that offers help in solving debt problems may seem like a reasonable solution when your bills become unmanageable. Be cautious. Before you do business with any company, check it out with your local consumer protection agency or the Better Business Bureau in the company's location.
Ads Promising Debt Relief May Really Be Offering Bankruptcy
Consumer debt is at an all-time high. What's more, a record number of consumers — more than 1.6 million in 2003 — are filing for bankruptcy. Whether your debt dilemma is the result of an illness, unemployment, or overspending, it can seem overwhelming. In your effort to get solvent, be on the alert for advertisements that offer seemingly quick fixes. And read between the lines when faced with ads in newspapers, magazines, or even telephone directories that say:
"Consolidate your bills into one monthly payment without borrowing"
"STOP credit harassment, foreclosures, repossessions, tax levies and garnishments"
"Keep Your Property"
"Wipe out your debts! Consolidate your bills! How? By using the protection and assistance provided by federal law. For once, let the law work for you!"
While the ads pitch the promise of debt relief, they rarely say relief may be spelled b-a-n-k-r-u-p-t-c-y. And although bankruptcy is one option to deal with financial problems, it's generally considered the option of last resort. The reason: it has a long-term negative impact on your creditworthiness. A bankruptcy stays on your credit report for 10 years, and can hinder your ability to get credit, a job, insurance, or even a place to live. What's more, it can cost you attorneys' fees.
Advance-Fee Loan Scams
These scams often target consumers with bad credit problems or those with no credit. In exchange for an up-front fee, these companies "guarantee" that applicants will get the credit they want — usually a credit card or a personal loan.
The up-front fee may be as high as several hundred dollars. Resist the temptation to follow up on advance-fee loan guarantees. They may be illegal. Many legitimate creditors offer extensions of credit, such as credit cards, loans, and mortgages through telemarketing, and require an application fee or appraisal fee in advance. But legitimate creditors never guarantee in advance that you'll get the loan. Under the federal Telemarketing Sales Rule, a seller or telemarketer who guarantees or represents a high likelihood of your getting a loan or some other extension of credit may not ask for or receive payment until you've received the loan.
Recognizing an Advance-Fee Loan Scam
Ads for advance-fee loans often appear in the classified ad section of local and national newspapers and magazines. They also may appear in mailings, radio spots, and on local cable stations. Often, these ads feature "900" numbers, which result in charges on your phone bill. In addition, these companies often use delivery systems other than the U.S. Postal Service, such as overnight or courier services, to avoid detection and prosecution by postal authorities.
It's not hard to confuse a legitimate credit offer with an advance-fee loan scam. An offer for credit from a bank, savings and loan, or mortgage broker generally requires your verbal or written acceptance of the loan or credit offer. The offer usually is subject to a check of your credit report after you apply to make sure you meet their credit standards. Usually, you are not required to pay a fee to get the credit.
Hang up on anyone who calls you on the phone and says they can guarantee you will get a loan if you pay in advance. It's against the law.
Here are some tips to keep in mind before you respond to ads that promise easy credit, regardless of your credit history:
Most legitimate lenders will not "guarantee" that you will get a loan or a credit card before you apply, especially if you have bad credit, or a bankruptcy.
It is an accepted and common practice for reputable lenders to require payment for a credit report or appraisal. You also may have to pay a processing or application fee.
Never give your credit card account number, bank account information, or Social Security number out over the telephone unless you are familiar with the company and know why the information is necessary.
Credit Repair Scams
You see the ads in newspapers, on TV, and on the Internet. You hear them on the radio. You get fliers in the mail. You may even get calls from telemarketers offering credit repair services. They all make the same claims:
"Credit problems? No problem!"
"We can erase your bad credit-100% guaranteed."
"Create a new credit identity-legally."
"We can remove bankruptcies, judgments, liens, and bad loans from your credit file forever!"
Do yourself a favor and save some money, too. Don't believe these statements. They're just not true. Only time, a conscientious effort, and a plan for repaying your debt will improve your credit report.
The Warning Signs If you should decide to respond to an offer to repair your credit, think twice. Don't do business with any company that:
wants you to pay for credit repair services before any services are provided
does not tell you your legal rights and what you can do yourself — for free
recommends that you not contact a consumer reporting company directly
suggests that you try to invent a "new" credit report by applying for an Employer Identification Number to use instead of your Social Security number
advises you to dispute all information in your credit report or take any action that seems illegal, such as creating a new credit identity. If you follow illegal advice and commit fraud, you may be subject to prosecution.
You could be charged and prosecuted for mail or wire fraud if you use the mail or telephone to apply for credit and provide false information. It's a federal crime to make false statements on a loan or credit application, to misrepresent your Social Security number, and to obtain an Employer Identification Number from the Internal Revenue Service under false pretenses.
The Credit Repair Organizations Act
By law, credit repair organizations must give you a copy of the "Consumer Credit File Rights Under State and Federal Law" before you sign a contract. They also must give you a written contract that spells out your rights and obligations. Read these documents before signing the contract. The law contains specific consumer protections. For example, a credit repair company cannot:
make false claims about their services
charge you until they have completed the promised services
perform any services until they have your signature on a written contract and have completed a three-day waiting period. During this time, you can cancel the contract without paying any fees.
Your contract must specify:
the total cost of the services
a detailed description of the services to be performed