Credit Repair

Credit Repair: How to Help Yourself

  

You see the advertisements in newspapers, on TV, and on the Internet. You hear them on the radio. You get fliers in the mail, and maybe even calls offering credit repair services. They all make the same claims:

“Credit problems? No problem!”

“We can remove bankruptcies, judgments, liens, and bad loans from your credit file forever!”

“We can erase your bad credit — 100% guaranteed.”

“Create a new credit identity — legally.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says do yourself a favor and save some money, too. Don’t believe these claims: they’re very likely signs of a scam. Indeed, attorneys at the nation’s consumer protection agency say they’ve never seen a legitimate credit repair operation making those claims. The fact is there’s no quick fix for creditworthiness. You can improve your credit report legitimately, but it takes time, a conscious effort, and sticking to a personal debt repayment plan.

Recognizing a Credit Repair Scam

Everyday, companies target consumers who have poor credit histories with promises to clean up their credit report so they can get a car loan, a home mortgage, insurance, or even a job once they pay them a fee for the service. The truth is, these companies can’t deliver an improved credit report for you using the tactics they promote. It’s illegal: No one can remove accurate negative information from your credit report. So after you pay them hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, you’re left with the same credit report and someone else has your money.

If you see a credit repair offer, here’s how to tell if the company behind it is up to no good:

  • The company wants you to pay for credit repair services before they provide any services. Under the Credit Repair Organizations Act, credit repair companies cannot require you to pay until they have completed the services they have promised.
  • The company doesn’t tell you your rights and what you can do for yourself for free.
  • The company recommends that you do not contact any of the three major national credit reporting companies directly.
  • The company tells you they can get rid of most or all the negative credit information in your credit report, even if that information is accurate and current.
  • The company suggests that you try to invent a “new” credit identity — and then, a new credit report — by applying for an Employer Identification Number to use instead of your Social Security number.
  • The company advises you to dispute all the information in your credit report, regardless of its accuracy or timeliness.

If you follow illegal advice and commit fraud, you may find yourself in legal hot water, too: It’s a federal crime to lie 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. You could be charged and prosecuted for mail or wire fraud if you use the mail, telephone, or Internet to apply for credit and provide false information.

Your Rights Regarding Credit Repair

No one can legally remove accurate and timely negative information from a credit report. The law allows you to ask for an investigation of information in your file that you dispute as inaccurate or incomplete. There is no charge for this. Some people hire a company to investigate on their behalf, but anything a credit repair clinic can do legally, you can do for yourself at little or no cost. According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA):

  • You’re entitled to a free report if a company takes “adverse action” against you, like denying your application for credit, insurance, or employment. You have to ask for your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action. The notice will give you the name, address, and phone number of the consumer reporting company. You’re also entitled to one free report a year if you’re unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days; if you’re on welfare; or if your report is inaccurate because of fraud, including identity theft.
  • Each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — is required to provide you with a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months, if you ask for it. The three companies have a central website, a toll-free telephone number, and a mailing address for consumers to order the free annual credit reports the government entitles them to. To order, click on annualcreditreport.com, call 1-877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to:

    Annual Credit Report Request Service P.O. Box 105281 Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

You can use the form in this brochure, or you can print it from ftc.gov/credit. You may order reports from each of the three consumer reporting companies at the same time, or you can stagger your requests, ordering one from each company throughout the year from the central address. Don’t contact the three nationwide consumer reporting companies individually or at another address because you may end up paying for a report that you’re entitled to get for free. In fact, each consumer reporting company may charge you up to $10.50 to purchase an additional copy of your report within a 12-month period.

  • It doesn’t cost anything to dispute mistakes or outdated items on your credit report. Under the FCRA, both the consumer reporting company and the information provider (that is, the person, company, or organization that provides information about you to a consumer reporting company) are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report. To take advantage of all your rights under the FCRA, contact the consumer reporting company and the information provider.

Helping Yourself

Step 1: Tell the consumer reporting company, in writing, what information you think is inaccurate. Include copies (NOT originals) of any documents that support your position. In addition to providing your complete name and address, your letter should identify each item in your report you dispute; state the facts and the reasons you dispute the information, and ask that it be removed or corrected. You may want to enclose a copy of your report, and circle the items in question. Send your letter by certified mail, “return receipt requested,” so you can document that the consumer reporting company received it. Keep copies of your dispute letter and enclosures. Your letter may look something like the one below.

 

Sample Dispute Letter

Date Your Name Your Address, City, State, Zip Code

Complaint Department Name of Company Address City, State, Zip Code

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing to dispute the following information in my file. The items I dispute also are encircled on the attached copy of the report I received.

This item (identify item(s) disputed by name of source, such as creditors or tax court, and identify type of item, such as credit account, judgment, etc.) is (inaccurate or incomplete) because (describe what is inaccurate or incomplete and why). I am requesting that the item be deleted (or request another specific change) to correct the information.

Enclosed are copies of (use this sentence if applicable and describe any enclosed documentation, such as payment records, court documents) supporting my position. Please investigate this (these) matter(s) and (delete or correct) the disputed item(s) as soon as possible.

Sincerely, Your name

Enclosures: (List what you are enclosing.)

 

Consumer reporting companies must investigate the items you question within 30 days — unless they consider your dispute frivolous. They also must forward all the relevant data you provide about the inaccuracy to the organization that provided the information. After the information provider receives notice of a dispute from the consumer reporting company, it is required to investigate, review the relevant information, and report the results back to the consumer reporting company. If this investigation reveals that the disputed information is inaccurate, the information provider has to notify the nationwide consumer reporting companies so they can correct it in your file.

When the investigation is complete, the consumer reporting company must give you the results in writing, too, and a free copy of your report if the dispute results in a change. If an item is changed or deleted, the consumer reporting company is not permitted to put the disputed information back in your file unless the information provider verifies that it is accurate and complete. The consumer reporting company also must send you written notice that includes the name, address, and phone number of the information provider. If you ask, the consumer reporting company must send notices of any correction to anyone who received your report in the past six months. You also can ask that a corrected copy of your report be sent to anyone who received a copy during the past two years for employment purposes.

If an investigation doesn’t resolve your dispute with the consumer reporting company, you can ask that a statement of the dispute be included in your file and in future reports. You also can ask the consumer reporting company to provide your statement to anyone who received a copy of your report in the recent past. You can expect to pay for this service.

Step 2: Tell the creditor or other information provider, in writing, that you dispute an item. Be sure to include copies (NOT originals) of documents that support your position. Many providers specify an address for disputes. If the provider reports the item to a consumer reporting company, it must include a notice of your dispute. And if you are correct — that is, if the information is found to be inaccurate — the information provider may not report it again.

Reporting Accurate Negative Information

When negative information in your report is accurate, only the passage of time can assure its removal. A consumer reporting company can report most accurate negative information for seven years and bankruptcy information for 10 years. Information about an unpaid judgment against you can be reported for seven years or until the statute of limitations runs out, whichever is longer. To calculate the seven-year reporting period, start from the date the event took place. There is no time limit on reporting information about criminal convictions; information reported in response to your application for a job that pays more than $75,000 a year; and information reported because you’ve applied for more than $150,000 worth of credit or life insurance.

The Credit Repair Organizations Act

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 you sign anything. And before signing, know that 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.

Before you sign a contract, be sure it specifies:

  • the payment terms for services, including the total cost
  • a detailed description of the services the company will perform
  • how long it will take to achieve the result
  • any guarantees the company offer
  • the company’s name and business address

Have You Been Victimized?

Many states have laws regulating credit repair companies. State law enforcement officials may be helpful if you’ve lost money to credit repair scams. Don’t be embarrassed to report a problem with a credit repair company. While you may fear that contacting the government could make your problems worse, remember that laws are in place to protect you. Contact your local consumer affairs office or your state Attorney General (AGs). Many AGs have toll-free consumer hotlines; check the Blue Pages of your telephone directory for the phone number or www.naag.org for a list of state attorneys general.

If You Need Help

Just because you have a poor credit report doesn’t mean you can’t get credit. Creditors set their own standards, and not all look at your credit history the same way. Some may look only at recent years to evaluate you for credit, and they may give you credit if your bill-paying history has improved. It may be worthwhile to contact creditors informally to discuss their credit standards.

If you’re not disciplined enough to create a workable budget and stick to it, to work out a repayment plan with your creditors, or to keep track of your mounting bills, you might consider contacting a credit counseling organization. Many credit counseling organizations are nonprofit and work with you to solve your financial problems. But remember that “nonprofit” status doesn’t guarantee free, affordable, or even legitimate services. In fact, some credit counseling organizations — even some that claim non-profit status — may charge high fees or hide their fees by pressuring consumers to make “voluntary” contributions that only cause more debt.

Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the Internet, or on the telephone. If possible, find an organization that offers in-person counseling. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.

If you are considering filing for bankruptcy, be aware that bankruptcy laws require that you get credit counseling from a government-approved organization within six months before you file for bankruptcy relief. You can find a state-by-state list of government-approved organizations at www.usdoj.gov/ust, the website of the U.S. Trustee Program. That’s the organization within the U.S. Department of Justice that supervises bankruptcy cases and trustees. Be wary of credit counseling organizations that say they are government-approved, but do not appear on the list of approved organizations.

Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you, and can help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.

Do-It-Yourself Check-Up

Regardless of your credit history, financial advisors and consumer advocates recommend reviewing your credit report periodically for three important reasons:

  1. The information in your credit report affects whether you can get a loan or insurance — and how much you will have to pay for it.
  2. It’s important to make sure the information is accurate, complete, and up-to-date before you apply for a loan for a major purchase like a house or car, buy insurance, or apply for a job.
  3. It can help you deter, detect and defend against identity theft. That’s when someone uses your personal information — like your name, your Social Security number, or your credit card number — to commit fraud. Identity thieves may use your information to open a new credit card account in your name. Then, when they don’t pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report. Inaccurate information like that could affect your ability to get credit, insurance, or even a job.

Your Access to Free Credit Reports

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. The FCRA promotes the accuracy and privacy of information in the files of the nation’s consumer reporting companies. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, enforces the FCRA with respect to consumer reporting companies.

A credit report includes information on where you live, how you pay your bills, and whether you’ve been sued or arrested, or have filed for bankruptcy. Nationwide consumer reporting companies sell the information in your report to creditors, insurers, employers, and other businesses that use it to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment, or renting a home.

Here are the details about your rights under the FCRA, which established the free annual credit report program.

Q: How do I order my free report?

A: The three nationwide consumer reporting companies have set up a central website, a toll-free telephone number, and a mailing address through which you can order your free annual report.

To order, visit annualcreditreport.com, call 1-877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. The form is on the back of this brochure; or you can print it from ftc.gov/credit. Do not contact the three nationwide consumer reporting companies individually. They are providing free annual credit reports only through annualcreditreport.com, 1-877-322-8228, and Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

You may order your reports from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies at the same time, or you can order your report from each of the companies one at a time. The law allows you to order one free copy of your report from each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies every 12 months.

A Warning About “Imposter” Websites

Only one website is authorized to fill orders for the free annual credit report you are entitled to under law — annualcreditreport.com. Other websites that claim to offer “free credit reports,” “free credit scores,” or “free credit monitoring” are not part of the legally mandated free annual credit report program. In some cases, the “free” product comes with strings attached. For example, some sites sign you up for a supposedly “free” service that converts to one you have to pay for after a trial period. If you don’t cancel during the trial period, you may be unwittingly agreeing to let the company start charging fees to your credit card.

Some “imposter” sites use terms like “free report” in their names; others have URLs that purposely misspell annualcreditreport.com in the hope that you will mistype the name of the official site. Some of these “imposter” sites direct you to other sites that try to sell you something or collect your personal information.

Annualcreditreport.com and the nationwide consumer reporting companies will not send you an email asking for your personal information. If you get an email, see a pop-up ad, or get a phone call from someone claiming to be from annualcreditreport.com or any of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies, do not reply or click on any link in the message. It’s probably a scam. Forward any such email to the FTC at spam@uce.gov.

Q: What information do I need to provide to get my free report?

A: You need to provide your name, address, Social Security number, and date of birth. If you have moved in the last two years, you may have to provide your previous address. To maintain the security of your file, each nationwide consumer reporting company may ask you for some information that only you would know, like the amount of your monthly mortgage payment. Each company may ask you for different information because the information each has in your file may come from different sources.

Q: Why do I want a copy of my credit report?

A: Your credit report has information that affects whether you can get a loan — and how much you will have to pay to borrow money. You want a copy of your credit report to:

  • make sure the information is accurate, complete, and up-to-date before you apply for a loan for a major purchase like a house or car, buy insurance, or apply for a job.
  • help guard against identity theft. That’s when someone uses your personal information — like your name, your Social Security number, or your credit card number — to commit fraud. Identity thieves may use your information to open a new credit card account in your name. Then, when they don’t pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report. Inaccurate information like that could affect your ability to get credit, insurance, or even a job.

Q: How long does it take to get my report after I order it?

A: If you request your report online at annualcreditreport.com, you should be able to access it immediately. If you order your report by calling toll-free 1-877-322-8228, your report will be processed and mailed to you within 15 days. If you order your report by mail using the Annual Credit Report Request Form, your request will be processed and mailed to you within 15 days of receipt.

Whether you order your report online, by phone, or by mail, it may take longer to receive your report if the nationwide consumer reporting company needs more information to verify your identity.

Q: Are there any other situations where I might be eligible for a free report?

A: Under federal law, you’re entitled to a free report if a company takes adverse action against you, such as denying your application for credit, insurance, or employment, and you ask for your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action. The notice will give you the name, address, and phone number of the consumer reporting company. You’re also entitled to one free report a year if you’re unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days; if you’re on welfare; or if your report is inaccurate because of fraud, including identity theft. Otherwise, a consumer reporting company may charge you up to $11.00 for another copy of your report within a 12-month period.

To buy a copy of your report, contact:

 

Q: Should I order a report from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies?

A: It’s up to you. Because nationwide consumer reporting companies get their information from different sources, the information in your report from one company may not reflect all, or the same, information in your reports from the other two companies. That’s not to say that the information in any of your reports is necessarily inaccurate; it just may be different.

Q: Should I order my reports from all three of the nationwide consumer reporting companies at the same time?

A: You may order one, two, or all three reports at the same time, or you may stagger your requests. It’s your choice. Some financial advisors say staggering your requests during a 12-month period may be a good way to keep an eye on the accuracy and completeness of the information in your reports.

Q: What if I find errors — either inaccuracies or incomplete information — in my credit report?

A: Under the FCRA, both the consumer report­ing company and the information provider (that is, the person, company, or organization that provides information about you to a consumer reporting company) are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report. To take full advantage of your rights under this law, contact the consumer reporting company and the information provider.

  1. Tell the consumer reporting company, in writing, what information you think is inaccurate.Consumer reporting companies must investigate the items in question — usually within 30 days — unless they consider your dispute frivolous. They also must forward all the relevant data you provide about the inaccuracy to the organization that provided the information. After the information provider receives notice of a dispute from the consumer reporting company, it must investigate, review the relevant information, and report the results back to the consumer reporting company. If the information provider finds the disputed information is inaccurate, it must notify all three nationwide consumer reporting companies so they can correct the information in your file.When the investigation is complete, the consumer reporting company must give you the written results and a free copy of your report if the dispute results in a change. (This free report does not count as your annual free report under the FACT Act.) If an item is changed or deleted, the consumer reporting company cannot put the disputed information back in your file unless the information provider verifies that it is accurate and complete. The consumer reporting company also must send you written notice that includes the name, address, and phone number of the information provider.
  2. Tell the creditor or other information provider in writing that you dispute an item. Many providers specify an address for disputes. If the provider reports the item to a consumer reporting company, it must include a notice of your dispute. And if you are correct — that is, if the information is found to be inaccurate — the information provider may not report it again.

Q: What can I do if the consumer reporting company or information provider won’t correct the information I dispute?

A: If an investigation doesn’t resolve your dispute with the consumer reporting company, you can ask that a statement of the dispute be included in your file and in future reports. You also can ask the consumer reporting company to provide your state­ment to anyone who received a copy of your report in the recent past. You can expect to pay a fee for this service.

If you tell the information provider that you dispute an item, a notice of your dispute must be included any time the information provider reports the item to a consumer reporting company.

Q: How long can a consumer reporting company report negative information?

A: A consumer reporting company can report most accurate negative information for seven years and bankruptcy information for 10 years. There is no time limit on reporting information about crimi­nal convictions; information reported in response to your application for a job that pays more than $75,000 a year; and information reported because you’ve applied for more than $150,000 worth of credit or life insurance. Information about a lawsuit or an unpaid judgment against you can be reported for seven years or until the statute of limitations runs out, which­ever is longer.

Q: Can anyone else get a copy of my credit report?

A: The FCRA specifies who can access your credit report. Creditors, insurers, employers, and other businesses that use the information in your report to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, em­ployment, or renting a home are among those that have a legal right to access your report.

Q: Can my employer get my credit report?

A: Your employer can get a copy of your credit report only if you agree. A consumer reporting company may not provide information about you to your employer, or to a prospective employer, without your written consent.

How to Dispute Credit Report Errors

Your credit report contains information about where you live, how you pay your bills, and whether you’ve been sued or arrested, or have filed for bankruptcy. Credit reporting companies sell the information in your report to creditors, insurers, employers, and other businesses that use it to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment, or renting a home. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) promotes the accuracy and privacy of information in the files of the nation’s credit reporting companies.

Some financial advisors and consumer advocates suggest that you review your credit report periodically. Why?

  • Because the information it contains affects whether you can get a loan — and how much you will have to pay to borrow money.
  • To make sure the information is accurate, complete, and up-to-date before you apply for a loan for a major purchase like a house or car, buy insurance, or apply for a job.
  • To help guard against identity theft. That’s when someone uses your personal information — like your name, your Social Security number, or your credit card number — to commit fraud. Identity thieves may use your information to open a new credit card account in your name. Then, when they don’t pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report. Inaccurate information like that could affect your ability to get credit, insurance, or even a job.

How to Order Your Free Report

An amendment to the FCRA requires each of the nationwide credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. For details, see Your Access to Free Credit Reports at ftc.gov/credit.

The three nationwide credit reporting companies have set up one website, toll-free telephone number, and mailing address through which you can order your free annual report. To order, visit annualcreditreport.com, call 1-877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. You can use the form in this brochure, or you can print it from ftc.gov/credit. Do not contact the three nationwide credit reporting companies individually. They are providing free annual credit reports only through annualcreditreport.com, 1-877-322-8228, and Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

You may order your reports from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies at the same time, or you can order from only one or two. The FCRA allows you to order one free copy from each of the nationwide credit reporting companies every 12 months.

You need to provide your name, address, Social Security number, and date of birth. If you have moved in the last two years, you may have to provide your previous address. To maintain the security of your file, each nationwide credit reporting company may ask you for some information that only you would know, like the amount of your monthly mortgage payment. Each company may ask you for different information because the information each has in your file may come from different sources.

Other situations where you might be eligible for a free report

You’re also entitled to a free report if a company takes adverse action against you, such as denying your application for credit, insurance, or employment, based on information in your report. You must ask for your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action. The notice will give you the name, address, and phone number of the credit reporting company.

You’re also entitled to one free report a year if you’re unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days; if you’re on welfare; or if your report is inaccurate because of fraud, including identity theft.

Otherwise, a credit reporting company may charge you up to $11.00 for another copy of your report within a 12-month period. To buy a copy of your report, contact:
Experian-1-888-397-3742 www.experian.com
TransUnion-1-800-916-8800 www.transunion.com

Equifax-1-800-685-1111 www.equifax.com

For details, see Your Access to Free Credit Reports at ftc.gov/credit.

The best credit repair info products  Credit Repair     

Correcting Errors

Under the FCRA, both the credit reporting company and the information provider (that is, the person, company, or organization that provides information about you to a credit reporting company) are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report. To take advantage of all your rights under this law, contact the credit reporting company and the information provider.

Step One

Tell the credit reporting company, in writing, what information you think is inaccurate. Include copies (NOT originals) of documents that support your position. In addition to providing your complete name and address, your letter should clearly identify each item in your report you dispute, state the facts and explain why you dispute the information, and request that it be removed or corrected. You may want to enclose a copy of your report with the items in question circled. Your letter may look something like the one below. Send your letter by certified mail, “return receipt requested,” so you can document what the credit reporting company received. Keep copies of your dispute letter and enclosures.

Credit reporting companies must investigate the items in question — usually within 30 days — unless they consider your dispute frivolous. They also must forward all the relevant data you provide about the inaccuracy to the organization that provided the information. After the information provider receives notice of a dispute from the credit reporting company, it must investigate, review the relevant information, and report the results back to the credit reporting company. If the information provider finds the disputed information is inaccurate, it must notify all three nationwide credit reporting companies so they can correct the information in your file.

When the investigation is complete, the credit reporting company must give you the results in writing and a free copy of your report if the dispute results in a change. This free report does not count as your annual free report. If an item is changed or deleted, the credit reporting company cannot put the disputed information back in your file unless the information provider verifies that it is accurate and complete. The credit reporting company also must send you written notice that includes the name, address, and phone number of the information provider.

If you ask, the credit reporting company must send notices of any corrections to anyone who received your report in the past six months. You can have a corrected copy of your report sent to anyone who received a copy during the past two years for employment purposes.

If an investigation doesn’t resolve your dispute with the credit reporting company, you can ask that a statement of the dispute be included in your file and in future reports. You also can ask the credit reporting company to provide your statement to anyone who received a copy of your report in the recent past. You can expect to pay a fee for this service.

Step Two

Tell the creditor or other information provider, in writing, that you dispute an item. Be sure to include copies (NOT originals) of documents that support your position. Many providers specify an address for disputes. If the provider reports the item to a credit reporting company, it must include a notice of your dispute. And if you are correct — that is, if the information is found to be inaccurate — the information provider may not report it again.

About Your File

Your credit file may not reflect all your credit accounts. Although most national department store and all-purpose bank credit card accounts will be included in your file, not all creditors supply information to credit reporting companies: some local retailers, credit unions, travel, entertainment, and gasoline card companies are among the creditors that don’t.

When negative information in your report is accurate, only the passage of time can assure its removal. A credit reporting company can report most accurate negative information for seven years and bankruptcy information for 10 years. Information about an unpaid judgment against you can be reported for seven years or until the statute of limitations runs out, whichever is longer. There is no time limit on reporting: information about criminal convictions; information reported in response to your application for a job that pays more than $75,000 a year; and information reported because you’ve applied for more than $150,000 worth of credit or life insurance. There is a standard method for calculating the seven-year reporting period. Generally, the period runs from the date that the event took place.

For more information, see Building a Better Credit Report at ftc.gov/credit.

Sample Dispute Letter

Date Your Name Your Address, City, State, Zip CodeComplaint Department Name of Company Address City, State, Zip CodeDear Sir or Madam:I am writing to dispute the following information in my file. I have circled the items I dispute on the attached copy of the report I received.

This item (identify item(s) disputed by name of source, such as creditors or tax court, and identify type of item, such as credit account, judgment, etc.) is (inaccurate or incomplete) because (describe what is inaccurate or incomplete and why). I am requesting that the item be removed (or request another specific change) to correct the information.

Enclosed are copies of (use this sentence if applicable and describe any enclosed documentation, such as payment records and court documents) supporting my position. Please reinvestigate this (these) matter(s) and (delete or correct) the disputed item(s) as soon as possible.

Sincerely, Your name

Enclosures: (List what you are enclosing.)

 

 

Building a Better Credit Report

If you’ve ever applied for a credit card, a personal loan, or insurance, there’s a file about you. This file is known as your credit report. It is chock full of information on where you live, how you pay your bills, and whether you’ve been sued or arrested, or have filed for bankruptcy. Credit reporting companies sell the information in your report to creditors, insurers, employers, and other businesses with a legitimate need for it. They use the information to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment, or a lease.

Having a good credit report means it will be easier for you to get loans and lower interest rates. Lower interest rates usually translate into smaller monthly payments.

Nevertheless, newspapers, radio, TV, and the Internet are filled with ads for companies and services that promise to erase accurate negative information in your credit report in exchange for a fee. The scam artists who run these ads not only don’t deliver — they can’t deliver. Only time, a deliberate effort, and a plan to repay your bills will improve your credit as it’s detailed in your credit report.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, has written this booklet to help explain how to build a better credit report. It has six sections:

Section 1: Explains your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act.

Section 2: Tells how you can legally improve your credit report.

Section 3: Offers tips on dealing with debt.

Section 4: Cautions about credit-related scams and how to avoid them.

Section 5: Offers information about identity theft.

Section 6: Lists resources for additional information.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) promotes the accuracy, fairness, and privacy of information in the files of the nation’s credit reporting companies. The FTC enforces the FCRA with respect to these companies. Recent amendments to the FCRA expand consumer rights and place additional requirements on credit reporting companies. Businesses that provide information about consumers to credit reporting companies and businesses that use credit reports also have new responsibilities under the law.

Here are answers to some of the questions consumers have asked the FTC about consumer reports and credit reporting companies

Q. Do I have a right to know what’s in my report? A. You have the right to know what’s in your report, but you have to ask for the information. The credit reporting company must tell you everything in your report, and give you a list of everyone who has requested your report within the past year — or the past two years if the requests were related to employment.

Q. What type of information do credit reporting companies collect and sell? A. Credit reporting companies collect and sell four basic types of information:

 

 

  • Identification and employment information: Your name, birth date, Social Security number, employer, and spouse’s name are noted routinely. The credit reporting company also may provide information about your employment history, home ownership, income, and previous address, if a creditor asks.
  • Payment history: Your accounts with different creditors are listed, showing how much credit has been extended and whether you’ve paid on time. Related events, such as the referral of an overdue account to a collection agency, also may be noted.
  • Inquiries: Credit reporting companies must maintain a record of all creditors who have asked for your credit history within the past year, and a record of individuals or businesses that have asked for your credit history for employment purposes for the past two years.
  • Public record information: Events that are a matter of public record, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, or tax liens, may appear in your report.

Q. Is there a charge for my report? A. Under the Free File Disclosure Rule of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act), each of the nationwide credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — is required to provide you with a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months, if you ask for it.
Q: How do I order my free report? A: The three nationwide credit reporting companies are using one website, one toll-free telephone number, and one mailing address for consumers to order their free annual report. To order, click on annualcreditreport.com, call 1-877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. The form is at the back of this brochure; or you can print it from ftc.gov/credit. Do not contact the three nationwide credit reporting companies individually. You may order your free annual reports from each of the credit reporting companies at the same time, or you can order them one at a time. The law allows you to order one free copy from each of the nationwide credit reporting companies every 12 months.
Q: What information do I have to provide to get my free report?A: You need to provide your name, address, Social Security number, and date of birth. If you have moved in the last two years, you may have to provide your previous address. To maintain the security of your file, each nationwide credit reporting company may ask you for some information that only you would know, like the amount of your monthly mortgage payment. Each company may ask you for different information because the information each has in your file may come from different sources.

 

Still, annualcreditreport.com is the only authorized online source for your free annual credit report from the three nationwide credit reporting companies. Neither the website nor the companies will call you first to ask for personal information or send you an email asking for personal information. If you get a phone call or an email — or see a pop-up ad — claiming it’s from annualcreditreport.com (or any of the three nationwide credit reporting companies), it’s probably a scam. Don’t reply or click on any link in the message. Instead, forward any email that claims to be from annualcreditreport.com (or any of the three credit reporting companies) to spam@uce.gov, the FTC’s database of deceptive spam.

Q: Are there other situations where I might be eligible for a free report?A: Under federal law, you’re entitled to a free report if a company takes adverse action against you, such as denying your application for credit, insurance, or employment, and you ask for your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action. The notice will give you the name, address, and phone number of the credit reporting company. You’re also entitled to one free report a year if you’re unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days; if you’re on welfare; or if your report is inaccurate because of fraud, including identity theft. Otherwise, any of the three credit reporting companies may charge you up to $10.50 for another copy of your report within a 12-month period.

 

To buy a copy of your report, contact:

The best credit repair info products  Credit Repair     

Equifax 1-800-685-1111 equifax.com
Experian 1-888-397-3742 experian.com
TransUnion 1-800-916-8800 transunion.com

Under state law, consumers in Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont already have free access to their credit reports.

For more information, see Your Access to Free Credit Reports at ftc.gov/credit.

Credit Scores

Q. What is a credit score, and how does it affect my ability to get credit?A: Credit scoring is a system creditors use to help determine whether to give you credit, and how much to charge you for it.

Information about you and your credit experiences, like your bill-paying history, the number and type of accounts you have, late payments, collection actions, outstanding debt, and the age of your accounts, is collected from your credit application and your credit report. Using a statistical formula, creditors compare this information to the credit performance of consumers with similar profiles. A credit scoring system awards points for each factor. A total number of points — a credit score — helps predict how creditworthy you are; that is, how likely it is that you will repay a loan and make the payments on time. Generally, consumers who are good credit risks have higher credit scores.

You can get your credit score from the three nationwide credit reporting companies, but you will have to pay a fee for it. Many other companies also offer credit scores for sale alone or as part of a package of products.

For more information, see Need Credit or Insurance? Your Credit Score Helps Determine What You’ll Pay at ftc.gov/credit.

Improving Your Credit Report

Under the FCRA, both the credit reporting company and the information provider (the person, company, or organization that provides information about you to a credit reporting company) are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report. To take advantage of all your rights under the FCRA, contact the credit reporting company and the information provider if you see inaccurate or incomplete information.

1. Tell the credit reporting company, in writing, what information you think is inaccurate. Include copies (NOT originals) of documents that support your position. In addition to providing your complete name and address, your letter should clearly identify each item in your report that you dispute, state the facts and explain why you dispute the information, and request that the information be deleted or corrected. You may want to enclose a copy of your report with the items in question circled. Your letter may look something like the one on page 8. Send your letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the credit reporting company received. Keep copies of your dispute letter and enclosures.

Credit reporting companies must investigate the items in question — usually within 30 days — unless they consider your dispute frivolous. They also must forward all the relevant data you provide about the inaccuracy to the organization that provided the information. After the information provider receives notice of a dispute from the credit reporting company, it must investigate, review the relevant information, and report the results back to the credit reporting company. If the information provider finds the disputed information is inaccurate, it must notify all three nationwide credit reporting companies so they can correct the information in your file.

When the investigation is complete, the credit reporting company must give you the written results and a free copy of your report if the dispute results in a change. (This free report does not count as your annual free report under the FACT Act.) If an item is changed or deleted, the credit reporting company cannot put the disputed information back in your file unless the information provider verifies that the information is, indeed, accurate and complete. The credit reporting company also must send you written notice that includes the name, address, and phone number of the information provider.

If you request, the credit reporting company must send notices of any correction to anyone who received your report in the past six months. A corrected copy of your report can be sent to anyone who received a copy during the past two years for employment purposes.

If an investigation doesn’t resolve your dispute with the credit reporting company, you can ask that a statement of the dispute be included in your file and in future reports. You also can ask the credit reporting company to provide your statement to anyone who received a copy of your report in the recent past. Expect to pay a fee for this service.

2. Tell the creditor or other information provider, in writing, that you dispute an item. Be sure to include copies (NOT originals) of documents that support your position. Many providers specify an address for disputes. If the provider reports the item to a credit reporting company, it must include a notice of your dispute. And if you are correct — that is, if the information is found to be inaccurate — the information provider may not report it again.

Sample Dispute Letter

Date Your Name Your Address Your City, State, Zip CodeComplaint Department Name of Company Address City, State, Zip CodeDear Sir or Madam: I am writing to dispute the following information in my file. The items I dispute also are circled on the attached copy of the report I received.This item (identify item(s) disputed by name of source, such as creditors or tax court, and identify type of item, such as credit account, judgment, etc.) is (inaccurate or incomplete) because (describe what is inaccurate or incomplete and why). I am requesting that the item be deleted (or request another specific change) to correct the information.

Enclosed are copies of (use this sentence if applicable and describe any enclosed documentation, such as payment records and court documents) supporting my position. Please investigate this (these) matter(s) and (delete or correct) the disputed item(s) as soon as possible.

Sincerely, Your name

 

Enclosures: (List what you are enclosing)

Accurate Negative Information

When negative information in your report is accurate, only the passage of time can assure its removal. A credit reporting company can report most accurate negative information for seven years and bankruptcy information for 10 years. Information about an unpaid judgment against you can be reported for seven years or until the statute of limitations runs out, whichever is longer. There is no time limit on reporting information about criminal convictions; information reported in response to your application for a job that pays more than $75,000 a year; and information reported because you’ve applied for more than $150,000 worth of credit or life insurance. There is a standard method for calculating the seven-year reporting period. Generally, the period runs from the date that the event took place.

Dealing with Debt

Having trouble paying your bills? Getting dunning notices from creditors? Are your accounts being turned over to debt collectors? Are you worried about losing your home or your car?

You’re not alone. Many people face financial crises at some time in their lives. Whether the crisis is caused by personal or family illness, the loss of a job, or simple overspending, it can seem overwhelming. But often, it can be overcome. The fact is that your financial situation doesn’t have to go from bad to worse.

If you or someone you know is in financial hot water, consider these options: realistic budgeting, credit counseling from a reputable organization, debt consolidation, or bankruptcy. How do you know which will work best for you? It depends on your level of debt, your level of discipline, and your prospects for the future.

Self-Help

Developing a BudgetThe first step toward taking control of your financial situation is to do a realistic assessment of how much money you take in and how much money you spend. Start by listing your income from all sources. Then, list your “fixed” expenses — those that are the same each month — like mortgage payments or rent, car payments, and insurance premiums. Next, list the expenses that vary — like entertainment, recreation, and clothing. Writing down all your expenses, even those that seem insignificant, is a helpful way to track your spending patterns, identify necessary expenses, and prioritize the rest. The goal is to make sure you can make ends meet on the basics: housing, food, health care, insurance, and education.

 

Your public library and bookstores have information about budgeting and money management techniques. In addition, computer software programs can be useful tools for developing and maintaining a budget, balancing your checkbook, and creating plans to save money and pay down your debt.

Contacting Your Creditors

Contact your creditors immediately if you’re having trouble making ends meet. Tell them why it’s difficult for you, and try to work out a modified payment plan that reduces your payments to a more manageable level. Don’t wait until your accounts have been turned over to a debt collector. At that point, your creditors have given up on you.

Dealing with Debt Collectors

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is the federal law that dictates how and when a debt collector may contact you. A debt collector may not call you before 8 a.m., after 9 p.m., or while you’re at work if the collector knows that your employer doesn’t approve of the calls. Collectors may not harass you, lie, or use unfair practices when they try to collect a debt. And they must honor a written request from you to stop further contact.

Credit Counseling

If you’re not disciplined enough to create a workable budget and stick to it, can’t work out a repayment plan with your creditors, or can’t keep track of mounting bills, consider contacting a credit counseling organization. Many credit counseling organizations are nonprofit and work with you to solve your financial problems. But be aware that just because an organization says it’s “nonprofit,” there’s no guarantee that its services are free, affordable, or even legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling organizations charge high fees, which may be hidden, or pressure consumers to make large “voluntary” contributions that can cause more debt.

Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the Internet, or on the telephone. If possible, find an organization that offers in-person counseling. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.

Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.

Auto and Home Loans

Your debts can be secured or unsecured. Secured debts usually are tied to an asset, like your car for a car loan, or your house for a mortgage. If you stop making payments, lenders can repossess your car or foreclose on your house. Unsecured debts are not tied to any asset, and include most credit card debt, bills for medical care, signature loans, and debts for other types of services.

Most automobile financing agreements allow a creditor to repossess your car any time you’re in default. No notice is required. If your car is repossessed, you may have to pay the balance due on the loan, as well as towing and storage costs, to get it back. If you can’t do this, the creditor may sell the car. If you see default approaching, you may be better off selling the car yourself and paying off the debt: You’ll avoid the added costs of repossession and a negative entry on your credit report.

If you fall behind on your mortgage, contact your lender immediately to avoid foreclosure. Most lenders are willing to work with you if they believe you’re acting in good faith and the situation is temporary. Some lenders may reduce or suspend your payments for a short time. When you resume regular payments, though, you may have to pay an additional amount toward the past due total. Other lenders may agree to change the terms of the mortgage by extending the repayment period to reduce the monthly debt. Ask whether additional fees would be assessed for these changes, and calculate how much they total in the long term.

If you and your lender cannot work out a plan, contact a housing counseling agency. Some agencies limit their counseling services to homeowners with FHA mortgages, but many offer free help to any homeowner who’s having trouble making mortgage payments. Call the local office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the housing authority in your state, city, or county for help in finding a legitimate housing counseling agency near you.

Debt Consolidation

You may be able to lower your cost of credit by consolidating your debt through a second mortgage or a home equity line of credit. Remember that these loans require you to put up your home as collateral. If you can’t make the payments — or if your payments are late — you could lose your home.

What’s more, the costs of consolidation loans can add up. In addition to interest on the loans, you may have to pay “points,” with one point equal to one percent of the amount you borrow. Still, these loans may provide certain tax advantages that are not available with other kinds of credit.

Bankruptcy

Personal bankruptcy generally is considered the debt management option of last resort because the results are long-lasting and far-reaching. A bankruptcy stays on your credit report for 10 years, and can make it difficult to obtain credit, buy a home, get life insurance, or sometimes get a job. Still, it is a legal procedure that offers a fresh start for people who can’t satisfy their debts. People who follow the bankruptcy rules receive a discharge — a court order that says they don’t have to repay certain debts.

The consequences of bankruptcy are significant and require careful consideration. Other factors to think about: Effective October 2005, Congress made sweeping changes to the bankruptcy laws. The net effect of these changes is to give consumers more incentive to seek bankruptcy relief under Chapter 13 rather than Chapter 7. Chapter 13 allows you, if you have a steady income, to keep property, such as a mortgaged house or car, that you might otherwise lose. In Chapter 13, the court approves a repayment plan that allows you to use your future income to pay off your debts during a three-to-five-year period, rather than surrender any property. After you have made all the payments under the plan, you receive a discharge of your debts.

Chapter 7, known as straight bankruptcy, involves the sale of all assets that are not exempt. Exempt property may include cars, work-related tools, and basic household furnishings. Some of your property may be sold by a court-appointed official — a trustee — or turned over to your creditors. The new bankruptcy laws have changed the time period during which you can receive a discharge through Chapter 7. You now must wait eight years after receiving a discharge in Chapter 7 before you can file again under that chapter. The Chapter 13 waiting period is much shorter and can be as little as two years between filings.

Both types of bankruptcy may get rid of unsecured debts and stop foreclosures, repossessions, garnishments, utility shut-offs, and debt collection activities. Both also provide exemptions that allow you to keep certain assets, although exemption amounts vary by state. Personal bankruptcy usually does not erase child support, alimony, fines, taxes, and some student loan obligations. Also, unless you have an acceptable plan to catch up on your debt under Chapter 13, bankruptcy usually does not allow you to keep property when your creditor has an unpaid mortgage or security lien on it.

Another major change to the bankruptcy laws involves certain hurdles that you must clear before even filing for bankruptcy, no matter what the chapter. You must get credit counseling from a government-approved organization within six months before you file for any bankruptcy relief. You can find a state-by-state list of government-approved organizations at usdoj.gov/ust. That is the website of the U.S. Trustee Program, the organization within the U.S. Department of Justice that supervises bankruptcy cases and trustees. Also, before you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, you must satisfy a “means test.” This test requires you to confirm that your income does not exceed a certain amount. The amount varies by state and is publicized by the U.S. Trustee Program at usdoj.gov/ust.

For more information, see Before You File for Personal Bankruptcy: Information About Credit Counseling and Debtor Education, Knee Deep in Debt, and Fiscal Fitness: Choosing a Credit Counselor at ftc.gov/credit.

Avoiding Scams

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

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.

Protecting Yourself

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 SignsIf 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 credit 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 ActBy 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
  • how long it will take to achieve the results
  • any “guarantees” they offer
  • the company’s name and business address

Where to ComplainIf you’ve had a problem with any of the scams described here, contact your local consumer protection agency, state Attorney General (AG), or Better Business Bureau. Many AGs have toll-free consumer hotlines. Check with your local directory assistance.

 

Identity Theft

An identity thief is someone who obtains some piece of your sensitive information, like your Social Security number, date of birth, address, and phone number, and uses it without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft.

How Identity Thieves Get Your Information

Skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods to gain access to your personal information. For example, they may:

  • get information from businesses or other institutions by:
    • stealing records or information while they’re on the job
    • bribing an employee who has access to these records
    • hacking these records
    • conning information out of employees
  • rummage through your trash, the trash of businesses, or public trash dumps in a practice known as “dumpster diving”
  • get your credit reports by abusing their employers’ authorized access to them, or by posing as a landlord, employer, or someone else who may have a legal right to access your report
  • steal your credit or debit card numbers by capturing the information in a data storage device in a practice known as “skimming.” They may swipe your card for an actual purchase, or attach the device to an ATM machine where you may enter or swipe your card.
  • steal wallets and purses containing identification and credit and bank cards
  • steal mail, including bank and credit card statements, new checks, or tax information
  • complete a “change of address form” to divert your mail to another location
  • steal personal information from your home
  • scam information from you by posing as a legitimate business person or government official

How Identity Thieves Use Your Information

Once identity thieves have your personal information, they may:

  • go on spending sprees using your credit and debit card account numbers to buy “big-ticket” items like computers that they can easily sell
  • open a new credit card account, using your name, date of birth, and Social Security number. When they don’t pay the bills, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report.
  • change the mailing address on your credit card account. The imposter then runs up charges on the account. Because the bills are being sent to the new address, it may take some time before you realize there’s a problem.
  • take out auto loans in your name
  • establish phone or wireless service in your name
  • counterfeit checks or debit cards, and drain your bank account
  • open a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account
  • file for bankruptcy under your name to avoid paying debts they’ve incurred, or to avoid eviction
  • give your name to the police during an arrest. If they are released and don’t show up for their court date, an arrest warrant could be issued in your name.

Protecting Yourself

Managing your personal information is key to minimizing your risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.

  • Keep an eye on your purse or wallet, and keep them in a safe place at all times.
  • Don’t carry your Social Security card.
  • Don’t share your personal information with random people you don’t know. Identity thieves are really good liars, and could pretend to be from banks, Internet service providers, or even government agencies to get you to reveal identifying information.
  • Read the statements from your bank and credit accounts and look for unusual charges or suspicious activity. Report any problems to your bank and creditors right away.
  • Tear up or shred your charge receipts, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards, and any other documents with personal information before you put them in the trash.

How To Tell If You’re a Victim of Identity Theft

Monitor the balances of your financial accounts. Look for unexplained charges or withdrawals. Other indications of identity theft can be:

  • failing to receive bills or other mail signaling an address change by the identity thief
  • receiving credit cards for which you did not apply
  • denial of credit for no apparent reason
  • receiving calls from debt collectors or companies about merchandise or services you didn’t buy.

What To Do If Your Identity’s Been Stolen

If you suspect that your personal information has been used to commit fraud or theft, take the following four steps right away. Follow up all calls in writing; send your letter by certified mail, and request a return receipt, so you can document what the company received and when; and keep copies for your files.

  1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports and review your credit reports.Contact any one of the nationwide credit reporting companies to place a fraud alert on your credit report. Fraud alerts can help prevent an identity thief from opening any more accounts in your name. The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their versions of your report, too.

    Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; equifax.com Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); experian.com TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; transunion.com 

  2. The best credit repair info products  Credit Repair     

    In addition to placing the fraud alert on your file, the three credit reporting companies will send you free copies of your credit reports, and, if you ask, they will display only the last four digits of your Social Security number on them.

  3. Close the accounts that you know, or believe, have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.Contact the security or fraud department of each company where you know, or believe, accounts have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Follow up in writing, and include copies (NOT originals) of supporting documents. It’s important to notify credit card companies and banks in writing. Send your letters by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the company received and when. Keep a file of your correspondence and enclosures.When you open new accounts, use new Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) and passwords. Avoid using easily available information like your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.
  4. File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.Get a copy of the police report or, at the very least, the number of the report. It can help you deal with creditors who need proof of the crime. If the police are reluctant to take your report, ask to file a “Miscellaneous Incidents” report, or try another jurisdiction, like your state police. You also can check with your state Attorney General’s office to find out if state law requires the police to take reports for identity theft. Check the Blue Pages of your telephone directory for the phone number or check naag.org for a list of state Attorneys General.
  5. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.By sharing your identity theft complaint with the FTC, you will provide important information that can help law enforcement officials across the nation track down identity thieves and stop them. The FTC also can refer your complaint to other government agencies and companies for further action, as well as investigate companies for violations of laws that the FTC enforces.You can file a complaint online at www.ftc.gov/idtheft. If you don’t have Internet access, call the FTC’s Identity Theft Hotline, toll-free: 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338); TTY: 1-866-653-4261; or write: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580.

For more information, see Deter, Detect, Defend: Avoid ID Theft, or Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft at ftc.gov/idtheft.

Knee Deep in Debt

Having trouble paying your bills? Getting dunning notices from creditors? Are your accounts being turned over to debt collectors? Are you worried about losing your home or your car? You’re not alone. Many people face a financial crisis some time in their lives. Whether the crisis is caused by personal or family illness, the loss of a job, or overspending, it can seem overwhelming. But often, it can be overcome. Your financial situation doesn’t have to go from bad to worse.

If you or someone you know is in financial hot water, consider these options: realistic budgeting, credit counseling from a reputable organization, debt consolidation, or bankruptcy. Debt settlement is yet another option. How do you know which will work best for you? It depends on your level of debt, your level of discipline, and your prospects for the future.

Self-Help

Developing a Budget: The first step toward taking control of your financial situation is to do a realistic assessment of how much money you take in and how much money you spend. Start by listing your income from all sources. Then, list your “fixed” expenses — those that are the same each month — like mortgage payments or rent, car payments, and insurance premiums. Next, list the expenses that vary — like entertainment, recreation, and clothing. Writing down all your expenses, even those that seem insignificant, is a helpful way to track your spending patterns, identify necessary expenses, and prioritize the rest. The goal is to make sure you can make ends meet on the basics: housing, food, health care, insurance, and education. Your public library and bookstores have information about budgeting and money management techniques. In addition, computer software programs can be useful tools for developing and maintaining a budget, balancing your checkbook, and creating plans to save money and pay down your debt.

Contacting Your Creditors: Contact your creditors immediately if you’re having trouble making ends meet. Tell them why it’s difficult for you, and try to work out a modified payment plan that reduces your payments to a more manageable level. Don’t wait until your accounts have been turned over to a debt collector. At that point, your creditors have given up on you.

Dealing with Debt Collectors: The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is the federal law that dictates how and when a debt collector may contact you. A debt collector may not call you before 8 a.m., after 9 p.m., or while you’re at work if the collector knows that your employer doesn’t approve of the calls. Collectors may not harass you, lie, or use unfair practices when they try to collect a debt. And they must honor a written request from you to stop further contact.

Managing Your Auto and Home Loans: Your debts can be unsecured or secured. Secured debts usually are tied to an asset, like your car for a car loan, or your house for a mortgage. If you stop making payments, lenders can repossess your car or foreclose on your house. Unsecured debts are not tied to any asset, and include most credit card debt, bills for medical care, signature loans, and debts for other types of services.

Most automobile financing agreements allow a creditor to repossess your car any time you’re in default. No notice is required. If your car is repossessed, you may have to pay the balance due on the loan, as well as towing and storage costs, to get it back. If you can’t do this, the creditor may sell the car. If you see default approaching, you may be better off selling the car yourself and paying off the debt: You’ll avoid the added costs of repossession and a negative entry on your credit report.

If you fall behind on your mortgage, contact your lender immediately to avoid foreclosure. Most lenders are willing to work with you if they believe you’re acting in good faith and the situation is temporary. Some lenders may reduce or suspend your payments for a short time. When you resume regular payments, though, you may have to pay an additional amount toward the past due total. Other lenders may agree to change the terms of the mortgage by extending the repayment period to reduce the monthly debt. Ask whether additional fees would be assessed for these changes, and calculate how much they total in the long term.

If you and your lender cannot work out a plan, contact a housing counseling agency. Some agencies limit their counseling services to homeowners with FHA mortgages, but many offer free help to any homeowner who’s having trouble making mortgage payments. Call the local office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the housing authority in your state, city, or county for help in finding a legitimate housing counseling agency near you.

Debt Relief Services

Credit Counseling: If you’re not disciplined enough to create a workable budget and stick to it, can’t work out a repayment plan with your creditors, or can’t keep track of mounting bills, consider contacting a credit counseling organization. Many credit counseling organizations are nonprofit and work with you to solve your financial problems. But be aware that, just because an organization says it’s “nonprofit,” there’s no guarantee that its services are free, affordable, or even legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling organizations charge high fees, which may be hidden, or urge consumers to make “voluntary” contributions that can cause more debt.

Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the Internet, or on the telephone. If possible, find an organization that offers in-person counseling. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.

Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.

Debt Management Plans

If your financial problems stem from too much debt or your inability to repay your debts, a credit counseling agency may recommend that you enroll in a debt management plan (DMP). A DMP alone is not credit counseling, and DMPs are not for everyone. You should sign up for one of these plans only after a certified credit counselor has spent time thoroughly reviewing your financial situation, and has offered you customized advice on managing your money. Even if a DMP is appropriate for you, a reputable credit counseling organization still can help you create a budget and teach you money management skills.

In a DMP, you deposit money each month with the credit counseling organization, which uses your deposits to pay your unsecured debts, like your credit card bills, student loans, and medical bills, according to a payment schedule the counselor develops with you and your creditors. Your creditors may agree to lower your interest rates or waive certain fees, but check with all your creditors to be sure they offer the concessions that a credit counseling organization describes to you. A successful DMP requires you to make regular, timely payments, and could take 48 months or more to complete. Ask the credit counselor to estimate how long it will take for you to complete the plan. You may have to agree not to apply for — or use — any additional credit while you’re participating in the plan.

Debt Settlement Programs

Debt settlement differs greatly from credit counseling and DMPs. It can be very risky, and have a long term negative impact on your credit report and, in turn, your ability to get credit.

The Claims

Debt settlement firms may claim they’ll negotiate with your creditors to reduce the amount you owe. Some debt settlement companies may claim that they can arrange for your debt to be paid off for a much lower amount – anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of the balance you owe. For example, if you owe $10,000 on a credit card, a debt settlement company may claim it can arrange for you to pay off the debt for less, say $4,000. Some debt settlement firms may also claim to be nonprofit.

Debt settlement firms often pitch their services as an alternative to bankruptcy. They may claim that using their services will have little or no negative impact on your ability to get credit in the future, or that any negative information can be removed from your credit report when you complete their debt negotiation program. The firms usually tell you to stop making payments to your creditors, and instead, send payments to the debt negotiation company. The firm may promise to hold your funds in a special account and pay your creditors on your behalf.

The Truth

There is no guarantee that the services debt settlement companies offer are legitimate. There also is no guarantee that a creditor will accept partial payment of a legitimate debt. In fact, if you stop making payments on a credit card, late fees and interest usually are added to the debt each month. If you exceed your credit limit, additional fees and charges also can be added. This can cause your original debt to double or triple. All these fees will put you further in the hole.

While creditors have no obligation to agree to negotiate the amount a consumer owes, they have a legal obligation to provide accurate information to the credit reporting agencies, including your failure to make monthly payments. That can result in a negative entry on your credit report. And in certain situations, creditors may have the right to sue you to recover the money you owe. In some instances, when creditors win a lawsuit, they have the right to garnish your wages or put a lien on your home. Finally, the Internal Revenue Service may consider any amount of forgiven debt to be taxable income.

Fees

Amendments to the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibit companies that sell debt settlement and other debt relief services on the phone from charging a fee before they settle or reduce your debt.

If you do business with a debt settlement company, you may be required to put money in a dedicated bank account, which will be administered by an independent third party. The account administrator may charge you a reasonable fee, and is responsible for transferring funds from your account to pay your creditors and the debt settlement company when settlements occur. See Settling Your Credit Card Debts at ftc.gov/credit for more information.

Disclosure Requirements

Before you sign up for the service, the debt settlement company must give you information about the program’s:

  • Price and terms. The company must explain its fees and must tell you about any conditions on its services.
  • Results.The company must tell you how long it will take to get results. That is, how many months or years before the company will make an offer to each creditor.
  • Offers.The company must tell you how much money or what percentage of each outstanding debt you must save before it will make an offer to each creditor.
  • Non-payment. If the company asks you to stop making payments to your creditors – or if the program relies on your not making payments – the company must tell you about the possible negative consequences of doing so.

Tax Consequences

Depending on your financial condition, the amount of any savings you obtain from debt relief services can be considered income and taxable. Credit card companies and others may report settled debt to the IRS, and the IRS considers it income, unless you are “insolvent.” You are insolvent when your total debts are more than the fair market value of your total assets. Insolvency can be fairly complex to determine – please talk to a tax professional if are not sure whether you qualify for this exception.

Researching Companies

If you decide to pay a company to negotiate your debt, do some research. Consider other people’s experiences. One way to do that is to enter the company name with the word “complaints” into a search engine. Read what others have said. You are making a big decision that involves spending a lot of your money that could go toward paying down your debt.

Protect Yourself

Be wary of any debt relief organization that:

  • charges any fees before it settles your debts
  • pressures you to make “voluntary contributions,” another name for fees
  • touts a “new government program” to bail out personal credit card debt
  • guarantees it can make your unsecured debt go away
  • tells you to stop communicating with your creditors
  • tells you it can stop all debt collection calls and lawsuits
  • guarantees that your unsecured debts can be paid off for just pennies on the dollar
  • won’t send you free information about the services it provides without requiring you to provide personal financial information, such as credit card account numbers, and balances
  • tries to enroll you in a debt relief program without spending time reviewing your financial situation.
  • offers to enroll you in a DMP without teaching you budgeting and money management skills.
  • demands that you make payments into a DMP before your creditors have accepted you into the program.

Debt Consolidation

You may be able to lower your cost of credit by consolidating your debt through a second mortgage or a home equity line of credit. Remember that these loans require you to put up your home as collateral. If you can’t make the payments — or if your payments are late — you could lose your home.

What’s more, the costs of consolidation loans can add up. In addition to interest on the loans, you may have to pay “points,” with one point equal to one percent of the amount you borrow. Still, these loans may provide certain tax advantages that are not available with other kinds of credit.

Bankruptcy

Personal bankruptcy generally is considered the debt management option of last resort because the results are long-lasting and far reaching. People who follow the bankruptcy rules receive a discharge — a court order that says they don’t have to repay certain debts. However, bankruptcy information (both the date of your filing and the later date of discharge) stay on your credit report for 10 years, and can make it difficult to obtain credit, buy a home, get life insurance, or sometimes get a job. Still, bankruptcy is a legal procedure that offers a fresh start for people who have gotten into financial difficulty and can’t satisfy their debts.

There are two primary types of personal bankruptcy: Chapter 13 and Chapter 7. Each must be filed in federal bankruptcy court. Filing fees are several hundred dollars. For more information visit www.uscourts.gov/bankruptcycourts/fees.html. Attorney fees are additional and can vary.

Chapter 13 allows people with a steady income to keep property, like a mortgaged house or a car, that they might otherwise lose through the bankruptcy process. In Chapter 13, the court approves a repayment plan that allows you to use your future income to pay off your debts during a three-to-five-year period, rather than surrender any property. After you have made all the payments under the plan, you receive a discharge of your debts.

Chapter 7 is known as straight bankruptcy, and involves liquidation of all assets that are not exempt. Exempt property may include automobiles, work-related tools, and basic household furnishings. Some of your property may be sold by a court-appointed official — a trustee — or turned over to your creditors. You must wait 8 years after receiving a discharge in Chapter 7 before you can file again under that chapter. The Chapter 13 waiting period is much shorter and can be as little as two years between filings.

Both types of bankruptcy may get rid of unsecured debts and stop foreclosures, repossessions, garnishments and utility shut-offs, and debt collection activities. Both also provide exemptions that allow people to keep certain assets, although exemption amounts vary by state. Note that personal bankruptcy usually does not erase child support, alimony, fines, taxes, and some student loan obligations. And, unless you have an acceptable plan to catch up on your debt under Chapter 13, bankruptcy usually does not allow you to keep property when your creditor has an unpaid mortgage or security lien on it.

You must get credit counseling from a government-approved organization within six months before you file for any bankruptcy relief. You can find a state-by-state list of government-approved organizations at www.usdoj.gov/ust. That is the website of the U.S. Trustee Program, the organization within the U.S. Department of Justice that supervises bankruptcy cases and trustees. Also, before you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, you must satisfy a “means test.” This test requires you to confirm that your income does not exceed a certain amount. The amount varies by state and is publicized by the U.S. Trustee Program at www.usdoj.gov/ust.

Damage Control

Turning to a business that offers help in solving debt problems may seem like a reasonable solution when your bills become unmanageable. But before you do business with any company, check it out with your state Attorney General, local consumer protection agency, and the Better Business Bureau. They can tell you if any consumer complaints are on file about the firm you’re considering doing business with. Ask your state Attorney General if the company is required to be licensed to work in your state and, if so, whether it is.

Some businesses that offer to help you with your debt problems may charge high fees and fail to follow through on the services they sell. Others may misrepresent the terms of a debt consolidation loan, failing to explain certain costs or mention that you’re signing over your home as collateral. Businesses advertising voluntary debt reorganization plans may not explain that the plan is a bankruptcy filing, tell you everything that’s involved, or help you through what can be a long and complex process.

In addition, some companies guarantee you a loan if you pay a fee in advance. The fee may range from $100 to several hundred dollars. Resist the temptation to follow up on these advance-fee loan guarantees. They may be illegal. It is true that many legitimate creditors offer extensions of credit through telemarketing and require an application or appraisal fee in advance. But legitimate creditors never guarantee that the consumer will get the loan — or even represent that a loan is likely. 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 accept payment until you’ve received the loan.

You should be cautious of claims from so-called credit repair clinics. Many companies appeal to consumers with poor credit histories, promising to clean up credit reports for a fee. But you already have the right to have any inaccurate information in your file corrected. And a credit repair clinic cannot have accurate information removed from your credit report, despite their promises. You also should know that federal and some state laws prohibit these companies from charging you for their services until the services are fully performed. Only time and a conscientious effort to repay your debts will improve your credit report.

If you’re thinking about getting help to stabilize your financial situation, do some homework first. Find out what services a business provides and what it costs, and don’t rely on verbal promises. Get everything in writing, and read your contracts carefully.

For More Information

To learn more about dealing with debt, visit www.ftc.gov/MoneyMatters.

Fiscal Fitness: Choosing a Credit Counselor

Living paycheck to paycheck? Worried about debt collectors? Can’t seem to develop a workable budget, let alone save money for retirement? If this sounds familiar, you may want to consider the services of a credit counselor. Many credit counseling organizations are nonprofit and work with you to solve your financial problems. But beware – just because an organization says it is “nonprofit” doesn’t guarantee that its services are free or affordable, or that its services are legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling organizations charge high fees, some of which may be hidden, or urge consumers to make “voluntary” contributions that cause them to fall deeper into debt.

Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the Internet, or on the telephone. If possible, find an organization that offers in-person counseling. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.

Amendments to the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibit for-profit credit counselors who sell debt settlement and other debt relief services on the phone from charging or collecting a fee before they settle, reduce or alter your debt. If you do business with a for-profit debt relief company, you may be required to put money in a dedicated bank account, which will be administered by an independent third party. See Settling Your Credit Card Debts at ftc.gov/credit for more information.

Choosing a Credit Counseling Organization

Reputable credit counseling organizations advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and usually offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.

A reputable credit counseling agency should send you free information about itself and the services it provides without requiring you to provide any details about your situation. If a firm doesn’t do that, consider it a red flag and go elsewhere for help.

Once you’ve developed a list of potential counseling agencies, check them out with your state Attorney General, local consumer protection agency, and Better Business Bureau. They can tell you if consumers have filed complaints about them. (But even if there are no complaints about them, it’s not a guarantee that they’re legitimate.) The United States Trustee Program also keeps a list of credit counseling agencies that have been approved to provide pre-bankruptcy counseling. You can find a state-by-state list of government-approved organizations at www.usdoj.gov/ust. After you’ve done your background investigation, it’s time for the most important research – you should interview the final “candidates.”

Questions to Ask

Here are some questions to ask to help you find the best counselor for you.

  • What services do you offer?Look for an organization that offers a range of services, including budget counseling, and savings and debt management classes. Avoid organizations that push a debt management plan (DMP) as your only option before they spend a significant amount of time analyzing your financial situation.
  • Do you offer information?Are educational materials available for free? Avoid organizations that charge for information.
  • In addition to helping me solve my immediate problem, will you help me develop a plan for avoiding problems in the future?
  • What are your fees?Are there set-up and/or monthly fees? Get a specific price quote in writing.
  • What if I can’t afford to pay your fees or make contributions?If an organization won’t help you because you can’t afford to pay, look elsewhere for help.
  • Will I have a formal written agreement or contract with you?Don’t sign anything without reading it first. Make sure all verbal promises are in writing.
  • Are you licensed to offer your services in my state?
  • What are the qualifications of your counselors?Are they accredited or certified by an outside organization? If so, by whom? If not, how are they trained? Try to use an organization whose counselors are trained by a non-affiliated party.
  • What assurance do I have that information about me (including my address, phone number, and financial information) will be kept confidential and secure?
  • How are your employees compensated? Are they paid more if I sign up for certain services, if I pay a fee, or if I make a contribution to your organization? If the answer is yes, consider it a red flag and go elsewhere for help.

Debt Management Plans

If your financial problems stem from too much debt or your inability to repay your debts, a credit counseling agency may recommend that you enroll in a debt management plan. A DMP alone is not credit counseling, and DMPs are not for everyone. Consider signing on for one of these plans only after a certified credit counselor has spent time thoroughly reviewing your financial situation, and has offered you customized advice on managing your money. Even if a DMP is appropriate for you, a reputable credit counseling organization still will help you create a budget and teach you money management skills.

How a DMP Works

You deposit money each month with the credit counseling organization. The organization uses your deposits to pay your unsecured debts, like credit card bills, student loans, and medical bills, according to a payment schedule the counselor develops with you and your creditors. Your creditors may agree to lower your interest rates and waive certain fees, but check with all your creditors to be sure that they offer the concessions that a credit counseling organization describes to you. A successful DMP requires you to make regular, timely payments, and could take 48 months or longer to complete. Ask the credit counselor to estimate how long it will take for you to complete the plan. You also may have to agree not to apply for – or use – any additional credit while you’re participating in the plan.

Is a DMP Right For You?

In addition to the questions already listed, here are some other important ones to ask if you’re considering enrolling in a DMP.

  • Is a DMP the only option you can give me?Will you provide me with on-going budgeting advice, regardless of whether I enroll in a DMP? If an organization offers only DMPs, find another credit counseling organization that also will help you create a budget and teach you money management skills.
  • How does your DMP work?How will you make sure that all my creditors will be paid by the applicable due dates and in the correct billing cycle? If a DMP is appropriate, sign up for one that allows all your creditors to be paid before your payment due dates and within the correct billing cycle.
  • How is the amount of my payment determined?What if the amount is more than I can afford? Don’t sign up for a DMP if you can’t afford the monthly payment.
  • How often can I get status reports on my accounts?Can I get access to my accounts online or by phone? Make sure that the organization you sign up with is willing to provide regular, detailed statements about your account.
  • Can you get my creditors to lower or eliminate interest and finance charges, or waive late fees?If yes, contact your creditors to verify this, and ask them how long you have to be on the plan before the benefits kick in.
  • What debts aren’t included in the DMP?This is important because you’ll have to pay those bills on your own.
  • Do I have to make any payments to my creditors before they will accept the proposed payment plan?Some creditors require a payment to the credit counselor before accepting you into a DMP. If a credit counselor tells you this is so, call your creditors to verify this information before you send money to the credit counseling agency.
  • How will enrolling in a DMP affect my credit?Beware of any organization that tells you it can remove accurate negative information from your credit report. Legally, it can’t be done. Accurate negative information may stay on your credit report for up to seven years.
  • Can you get my creditors to “re-age” my accounts – that is, to make my accounts current? If so, how many payments will I have to make before my creditors will do so? Even if your accounts are “re-aged,” negative information from past delinquencies or late payments will remain on your credit report.
How to Make a DMP Work for You
    • The following steps will help you benefit from a DMP, and avoid falling further into debt.
    • Continue to pay your bills until the plan has been approved by your creditors. If you stop making payments before your creditors have accepted you into a plan, you’ll face late fees, penalties, and negative entries on your credit report.
    • Contact your creditors and confirm that they have accepted the proposed plan before you send any payments to the credit counseling organization for your DMP.
    • Make sure the organization’s payment schedule allows your debts to be paid before they are due each month. Paying on time will help you avoid late fees and penalties. Call each of your creditors on the first of every month to make sure the agency has paid them on time.
    • Review monthly statements from your creditors to make sure they have received your payments.
    • If your debt management plan depends on your creditors agreeing to lower or eliminate interest and finance charges, or waive late fees, make sure these concessions are reflected on your statements.

Debt Settlement Programs

Debt settlement differs greatly from credit counseling and DMPs. It can be very risky, and have a long term negative impact on your credit report and, in turn, your ability to get credit. That’s why the FTC and many states have laws or rules regulating debt settlement companies and the services they offer. Contact your state Attorney General for more information.

The Claims

Debt settlement firms may claim they’ll negotiate with your creditors to reduce the amount you owe. Some debt settlement companies may claim that they can arrange for your debt to be paid off for a much lower amount – anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of the balance you owe. For example, if you owe $10,000 on a credit card, a debt settlement company may claim it can arrange for you to pay off the debt for less, say $4,000. Some debt settlement firms may also claim to be nonprofit.

Debt settlement firms often pitch their services as an alternative to bankruptcy. They may claim that using their services will have little or no negative impact on your ability to get credit in the future, or that any negative information can be removed from your credit report when you complete their debt negotiation program. The firms usually tell you to stop making payments to your creditors and, instead, send payments to the debt negotiation company. The firm may promise to hold your funds in a special account and pay your creditors on your behalf.

The Truth

There is no guarantee that the services debt settlement companies offer are legitimate. There also is no guarantee that a creditor will accept partial payment of a legitimate debt. In fact, if you stop making payments on a credit card, late fees and interest usually are added to the debt each month. If you exceed your credit limit, additional fees and charges also can be added. This can cause your original debt to double or triple. All these fees will put you further in the hole.

While creditors have no obligation to agree to negotiate the amount a consumer owes, they have a legal obligation to provide accurate information to the credit reporting agencies, including your failure to make monthly payments. That can result in a negative entry on your credit report. And in certain situations, creditors may have the right to sue you to recover the money you owe. In some instances, when creditors win a lawsuit, they have the right to garnish your wages or put a lien on your home. Finally, the Internal Revenue Service may consider any amount of forgiven debt to be taxable income.

Fees

Amendments to the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibit companies that sell debt settlement and other debt relief services on the phone from charging a fee before they settle or reduce your debt.

If you do business with a debt settlement company, you may be required to put money in a dedicated bank account, which will be administered by an independent third party. The account administrator may charge you a reasonable fee, and is responsible for transferring funds from your account to pay your creditors and the debt settlement company when settlements occur. See Settling Your Credit Card Debts at ftc.gov/credit for more information.

Disclosure Requirements

Before you sign up for the service, the debt settlement company must give you information about the program’s:

Price and terms. The company must explain its fees and must tell you about any conditions on its services.

Results. The company must tell you how long it will take to get results. That is, how many months or years before the company will make an offer to each creditor.

Offers. The company must tell you how much money or what percentage of each outstanding debt you must save before it will make an offer to each creditor.

Non-payment. If the company asks you to stop making payments to your creditors – or if the program relies on your not making payments – the company must tell you about the possible negative consequences of doing so.

Tax Consequences

Depending on your financial condition, the amount of any savings you obtain from debt relief services can be considered income and taxable. Credit card companies and others may report settled debt to the IRS, and the IRS considers it income, unless you are “insolvent.” You are insolvent when your total debts are more than the fair market value of your total assets. Insolvency can be fairly complex to determine – please talk to a tax professional if are not sure whether you qualify for this exception.

Tip-offs to Rip-offs

    • Steer clear of debt relief companies that:
    • charge any fees before it settles your debts
    • guarantee they can remove your unsecured debt
    • tout a “new government program” to bail out personal credit card debt
    • promise that unsecured debts can be paid off with pennies on the dollar
    • tell you to stop making payments to or communicating with your creditors
    • tell you it can stop all debt collection calls and lawsuits
    • claim that creditors never sue consumers for non-payment of unsecured debt
    • promise that using their system will have no negative impact on your credit report
    • claim that they can remove accurate negative information from your credit report.

If you decide to work with a debt settlement company, be sure to check it out with your state Attorney General, local consumer protection agency, and the Better Business Bureau. They can tell you if any consumer complaints are on file about the firm you’re considering doing business with. Also, ask your state Attorney General if the company is required to be licensed to work in your state and, if so, whether it is.