Government agencies aren't the only ones cracking down on credit counseling agencies. Now some of the top banks and credit-card issuers are changing the funding formulas they use to help support credit counselors.
Lenders have for decades quietly funded credit counselors through rebates, paying the counselors a percentage of the money they recover through repayment plans. The lenders saw the program, called Fair Share, as a cost-effective way of dealing with problem loans that might otherwise wind up in the loss column.
Citigroup, the nation's largest credit card issuer, has abandoned Fair Share, informing 850 credit counseling firms that it will convert to a system of quarterly charitable contributions. Instead of rebates, Citigroup says it will make quarterly charitable donations based on its perceptive of the agency's need and "the benefit they provide to the customer and the community."
The nation's second-largest credit card issuer, MBNA America, is sticking with Fair Share but tightening its requirements. MBNA says it will only fund nonprofits that charge fair fees and don't use a for-profit firm to contact and enroll customers. Bank of America has already imposed similar terms.
The Internal Revenue Service has opened an investigation of the credit-counseling business, auditing more than 30 agencies to see if they have abused their not-for-profit status.
One of the largest credit counselors, AmeriDebt, has been sued by the Federal Trade commission and several states, charging that it deceived consumers and passed through fee payments to a for-profit company.
Consumer advocates were divided on the effect of the changes. Many noted that more consumers have filed for bankruptcy in recent months than ever before and millions of consumers are in serious financial trouble. It might not be the best time to cut back on helping troubled consumers, some suggested.