What a Half Million Unwary Consumers Don’t Know: Schemes Only Work for 1 in 10 Who Pay for Them; Consumer Alert: Debt Settlement Programs Seen as “#1 Threat to America’s Most Indebted Consumers.”
As few as one in 10 unwary consumers who are lured into so-called “debt settlement” schemes actually end up debt free in the promised period of time, making the risky schemes the No. 1 threat facing America’s most deeply indebted Americans, according to a major new consumer alert issued today by the nonprofit National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA).
Available online at http://www.nacba.org, the NACBA consumer alert notes: “Already struggling with home foreclosures, harsh bank and credit card fees, and other major financial challenges, America’s most deeply indebted consumers are now falling victim to a major new threat: so-called ‘debt settlement’ schemes that promise to make clients ’debt free’ in a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, most consumers who pursue debt settlement services find themselves facing not relief but even steeper financial losses. Even the industry acknowledges – though not in its ever-present radio and online advertising – that debt settlement schemes fail to work for about two thirds of clients. Federal and state officials put the debt-settlement success rate even lower – at about one in 10 cases – meaning that the vast majority of unwary and uninformed consumers end up with more red ink, not the promised debt-free outcome.”
The private debt-settlement industry remains robust. More than 500,000 Americans with approximately $15 billion of debt are currently enrolled in debt settlement programs, according to industry estimates. And there is room for further growth: One in 8 U.S. households has more than $10,000 in credit card debt.
Durham, NC bankruptcy attorney Ed Boltz, NACBA Board member and incoming NACBA president, said: “Based on what bankruptcy attorneys are seeing across the nation, we believe that debt settlement schemes are the number one problem facing America’s most deeply indebted consumers today. Bombarded with slick radio and Web advertising falsely promising a smooth road to being debt free in a short period of time, these companies prey on the most desperate victims of the economic downturn. These particularly vulnerable consumers usually end up getting sued, stuck with outrageous fees, more deeply in debt, and far worse off in terms of their credit score.”
Earlier this year, NACBA focused national attention on the “student debt bomb,” which then was identified as the fastest growing consumer debt problem being handled by consumer bankruptcy attorneys.
Richard Thompson, a Rialto, California, retiree and victim of a debt settlement scheme, said: “I was told they could settle my $89,000 in debts for a total of $39,000 if I made payments of $1,800 for 22 months. I was contacted about a chance to settle $15,000 debt for $6,000 but my debt-settlement company ignored the offer. In fact, I paid them a total of $25,200 as they kept on ignoring settlement offers from creditors. I thought they were taking care of me by bringing my debt down, but all they were doing was taking my money. I ended up with $25,000 more in debt than I started out with. Before I retired I worked 25 years as a manager, now I have had to go back to work as a part-time security guard to help make ends meet.”
Bankruptcy attorney Trisha Connors, a NACBA member from Glen Rock, New Jersey who has testified before the New Jersey Law Revision Commission on debt settlement abuses, said: “Over the last three years, I have worked with 12 different for-profit debt settlement companies and over 25 clients who came to me after their debt settlement program failed to serve them. The results with each client were the same: exorbitant fees being paid, settlement (at best) of one small credit card debt, and mounting late fees and penalty interest charges on the unsettled debts. When clients informed the debt settlement companies of their desire to exit the program, the firms kept all or most of the accumulated savings for debt reduction as ‘fees.’ Every person I dealt with who had been current on their debts prior to contacting a debt settlement program told me that the sales representative told him the only way to be successful in the program is to stop paying credit card bills.”
Ellen Harnick, senior policy counsel, Center for Responsible Lending, said: “Debt settlement companies require clients to default on their debts before they will negotiate. This adds late fees and penalty interest to their debt and frequently results in the client being sued by creditors. Since only a tiny proportion of debts are actually settled by these companies, clients are typically left worse off than they were when they started.”
In addition to highlighting the stories of three victims of debt settlement schemes, the NACBA consumer alert notes the following:
• There is now across-the-board agreement on the danger that debt settlement schemes pose to consumers. The Better Business Bureau has designated debt settlement as an “inherently problematic business.” Similarly, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs called debt settlement “the single greatest consumer fraud of the year.” Across the country, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Federal Trade Commission, 41 state attorneys general, consumer and legal services entities, and consumer bankruptcy attorneys have all uncovered substantial evidence of abuses by a wide range of debt settlement companies.
• Debt settlement schemes encourage consumers to default on their debts. Because creditors frequently will not negotiate reduced balances with consumers who are still current on their bills, debt settlement companies often instruct their clients to stop making monthly payments, explaining that they will negotiate a settlement with funds the client has paid in lieu of their monthly debt repayments. Once the client defaults, he or she faces fines, penalties, higher interest rates, and are subjected to increasingly aggressive debt-collection efforts including litigation and wage garnishment. Consequently, consumers often find themselves worse off than when the process of debt settlement began: They are deeper in debt, with their credit scores severely harmed.
• “Self help” may be the best answer for smaller debt burdens. If you have just a single debt that you are having trouble paying (such as a single credit card debt) and you have cash on hand that can be used to settle the debt, you may be able to negotiate favorable settlement terms with the creditor yourself. Creditors typically require anywhere from 25 to 70 percent on the dollar to settle a debt so you will need that much cash for a successful offer. Be sure to get an explicit written document from the creditor spelling out the terms of the debt settlement and relieving you of any future liability. Also be prepared to pay income taxes on any of the forgiven debt.
• Nonprofit credit counseling agencies can help, but must be vetted carefully. If, like most people, you owe multiple creditors and do not have the cash on hand to settle those debts, you may want to consult a non-profit credit counseling agency to see if there is a way for you to get out of debt. But make sure to check it out first: Just because an organization says it’s a “nonprofit” there is no guarantee that its services are free, affordable or even legitimate. Some credit counseling organizations charge high fees (which may not be obvious initially) or urge consumers to make “voluntary” contributions that may lead to more debt. The federal government maintains a list of government-approved credit counseling organizations, by state, at www.usdoj.gov/ust. If a credit counseling organization says it is “government approved,” check them out first.
• Bankruptcy will be an option for some consumers. Bankruptcy is a legal proceeding that offers a fresh start for people who face financial difficulty and can’t repay their debts. If you are facing foreclosure, repossession of your car, wage garnishment, utility shut-off or other debt collection activity, bankruptcy may be the only option available for stopping those actions. There are two primary types of personal bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 13 allows people with a stable income to keep property, such as a house or car, which they may otherwise lose through foreclosure or repossession. In a Chapter 13 proceeding, the bankruptcy court approves a repayment plan that allows you to pay your debts during a three to five year period. After you have made all the payments under the plan, you receive a discharge of all or most remaining debts. For tax purposes, a person filing for bankruptcy is considered insolvent and the forgiven debt is not considered income. Chapter 7 also eliminates most debts without tax consequences, and without any loss of property in over 90 percent of cases. To learn more about bankruptcy and whether it makes sense for you, go to http://www.nacba.org/Home/AttorneyFinderV2.aspx.
NACBA urges consumers to steer clear of any companies that:
• Make promises that unsecured debts can be paid off for pennies on the dollar. There is no guarantee that any creditor will accept partial payment of a legitimate debt. Your best bet is to contact the creditor directly as soon as you have problems making payments.
• Require substantial monthly service fees and demand payment of a percentage of what they’ve supposedly saved you. Most debt settlement companies charge hefty fees for their services, including a fee to establish the account with the debt negotiator, a monthly service fee, and a final fee– a percentage of the money you’ve allegedly saved.
• Tell you to stop making payments or to stop communicating with your creditors. If you stop making payments on a credit card or other debts, expect late fees and interest to be added to the amount you owe each month. If you exceed your credit limit, expect additional fees and charges to be added. Your credit score will also suffer as a result of not making payments.
• Suggest that there is only a small likelihood that you will be sued by creditors. In fact, this is a likely outcome. Signing up with a debt settlement company makes it more likely that creditors will accelerate collection efforts against you. Creditors have the right to sue you to recover the money you owe. And sometimes when creditors win a lawsuit, they have the right to garnish your wages or put a lien on your home.
• State that they can remove accurate negative information from your credit report. No company or person can remove negative information from your credit report that is accurate and timely.
Courtesy of National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.