While there's a desperate need for better credit education to keep consumers from getting into trouble and better debt counseling to help them get out of trouble, the problem is that there is next to no oversight of these services.
- There is no federal regulation of debt counseling services.
- Only 17 states have specific regulations governing debt counseling.
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"It's the wild, wild West out there," one New York bankruptcy attorney said.
With thousands of these services popping up in every city and town, there's no way anyone can track all of them -- and it can be hard to find a good one. Here are some suggestions:
- Avoid any agency that advertises on television, solicits you by phone or sends you spam.
- Look for an agency that is a member of the National Foundation of Credit Counseling (NFCC), a 50-year-old organization with strict accreditation guidelines.
- Visit www.debtadvice.org to find an NFCC affiliate in your area.
- Don't be misled by agencies that say they are "non-profit." It is a meaningless designation.
- Don't give your credit card or bank account numbers to any agency over the telephone.
- Don't agree to fees of more than $20. Reputable agencies do not keep the first month's payment, demand a contribution or charge high fees.
- Don't believe anyone who says you can "wipe out" your debt.