Avoid Debt Management Scams

Anyone who has paid attention to the mounting credit card crisis afflicting modern Americans should not be surprised by the sudden explosion of debt management firms in the last decade. The debt management industry has grown exponentially over the past few years, assisting any number of borrowers with their financial burdens, but, as with any new business that concerns itself with debt and credit cards, a breed of predatory debt service ‘professionals’ seek only to exploit the economically desperate households by promising savings they could never deliver and sometimes even defrauding them altogether. Scam artists are an unfortunate consequence of any profession, and the debt relief industry is no better or worse. However, since word of mouth and a reputation for honesty and competence can make or break a company – especially a finance company – these nefarious loan workers don’t last long. However, just in case you’re unlucky enough to meet one of the less reputable debt management workers, here are a few tips to identify the worst sort.

Since debt consolidation loan programs are the most popular form of debt management, let’s start with loan officers and how they can trick unwary homeowners into borrowing more than would be advisable upon their property. Essentially, this sort of debt consolidation depends upon home equity. Credit ratings (above 700 FICO scores, ideally), debt to income ratios (less than forty percent of gross months income should go to home mortgage payments and revolving debt payments), and employment histories (clients most likely to be approved should have worked the same job for two years as provable by W-2 tax returns) are, of course, important. However, the most important element for mortgage debt consolidation will be the amount of home equity the homeowner currently enjoys.

Now, not only is home equity a tricky subject at present with property values falling all over America, but this drop in values is largely the fault of mortgage companies themselves. With an absence of regulation somewhat absurd in retrospect, criminally negligent loan officers and mortgage brokers (together with processors that looked the other way and appraisers that exponentially bumped up home values) gave loans to borrowers that should never have deserved them. The resulting mortgages proved more than the homeowners could possibly afford, and the glut of foreclosures (which should have been expected) drove down home prices which only worsened the potential refinance and debt management solutions homeowners would ordinarily presume to be available. Furthermore, these same foreclosures cost the original mortgage lenders (within a debt industry dependent upon constant cash flow for their bottom line) tens of millions of dollars and a previously inexplicable number of mortgage companies simply faded away. Though many of these businesses deserved to go under, the sudden failure of so many mortgage companies had a dire effect upon the American economy and our newly skyrocketing unemployment is but one consequence.

This is not to say that all of the mortgage refinance options are to be avoided. While it is much harder to take out a mortgage loan under current conditions, some homeowners – facing adjustable rates or balloon payments – simply have no choice. On the other hand, it is NOT necessary for them to include their credit card debts within their refinance no matter what the more aggressive loan officers would try to convince them of. Home mortgage refinancing is a form of debt management, of course, and making sure that what will be the average American consumer’s largest lifetime debt falls under acceptable (and formally fixed) interest rates should be of the utmost priority. However, what trustworthy mortgage professionals will explain is that the longer the term the more money you pay with even a locked prime interest rate. That’s just the way compound interest works. For that reason, mortgage professionals attempting to explain debt management should do whatever it takes to make borrowers have the lowest terms that would be comfortable for their household budget.

Not, you understand, that they should try to find the lowest payments for borrowers (obviously, it would be rather the opposite), but rather the fewest payments that they would have to pay over the course of the loan. A fifteen year term, if applicable, should be advised before the thirty, and biweekly payment programs that add up to essentially thirteen months of payments every year with accompanying years off the loan pay-off should also be strenuously encouraged. Perhaps most importantly, the loan officers should always ensure that the lender did not include some provisions against early pay-offs. Prepayment penalties, though technically legal, are the most underhanded strategies of less than trustworthy mortgage brokers. Anyone who tries to force through a prepayment penalty on unsuspecting homeowners or tries to convince them of the merits – often they’ll knock a few hundred dollars off the loan fees – should be avoided no matter their (evidently overstated reputation).

While all of this should be fully recognized by homeowners before they start talks with any mortgage lender or broker, your authors are aware that debt management this day and age primarily concerns itself with credit card debts. There are many other sorts of financial burdens for consumers to worry about, but the average American’s greatest worry tends to be the overload of credit card bills. Student loans, for example, generally boast the lowest interest rates of all types of debts. Hospitals and insurance companies, whatever their public perception, regularly work with their debtor clients to make sure that their medical bills are not an undue burden, even offering stays of payment. Auto loans, it is true, sometimes have higher interest rates, but they’re still rarely above those offered from mortgage loans or home equity loans. Nevertheless, even if there is a significant different between the interest rates (and, for credit card debts, there is almost always a steep drop once consolidated), the smart borrower has to remember the effects of compound interest. It is easy to see why loan officers would try to sugar coat the debt consolidation program, their pay is based around the overall size of the loans that are refinanced or taken out, but that is no reason to willfully ignore the borrowers’ true needs.

Not to belabor the point, but the worst suggestion that an unscrupulous loan officers can inflict upon their homeowner clients would be advising them to throw their credit cards debts onto a mortgage consolidation lasting decades. This is not debt management, this is debt avoidance. Borrowers will find that they are still paying their debts, but, after the interest continues to multiply, they will be paying their debts many times over. Worse still – especially in these trying times – homeowners are surrendering their ever more precious equity for only a temporary fix. Credit scores will fall from the sudden amount of credit card accounts now open, and, more to the point, how many consumers, once they have moved their debts over to a different loan source, would be able to resist the temptation to revisit their former spending habits and once again rack up bills through thoughtless purchasing. The key to any true and lasting debt management must be the debt professional working with the consumer to actually pay off their debts! Simply moving them to an equity loan that, for the moment, lowers their payments (however much longer and how much more they will inevitably pay) does nothing to assist the borrowers’ long term financial stability. Any viable program for debt relief must concentrate not only upon education to prevent such debt from occurring in the future but on actually eliminating the borrowers’ debts!

There are many other varieties of debt management, of course – not all debtors, after all, own their own homes. Consumer Credit Counseling companies have been exploding in popularity of late, but they contain their own string of suspicious activities each consumer must keep an eye out for. Since the industry does not tend to care so highly for certification, they attract more than their share of con artists and shady ‘corporations’. For this reason, borrowers must be incredibly diligent when investigating the bonafides of any business that they consider dealing with. Do not be fooled by flashy web sites or nice offices in well regarded areas. Debt management is about the people that you work with and many of the best debt professionals and debt management films, working in such a new industry, will not spend the time or money on advertisements while trying to make their way through a career or business with the best of motives.

Once again, though, even for those Consumer Credit Counseling companies that actually are legitimate, so much of the industry still depends upon credit card conglomerates (the very creditors that your debt management representatives are ostensibly fighting against) for half of their payments. Have you ever wondered why there are so very many Consumer Credit Counseling commercials on the television urging unsuspecting debtors to take a change at easing their financial burdens? As it turns out, above and beyond the sky high fees initially charged to the debtor clients themselves, the CCC firms get even more money from the various lenders. It is all part of a ploy by the credit card companies to prevent borrowers from attempting to declare bankruptcy. Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection has been greatly lessened over the last few years of an unfettered congressional deregulation, but the option does still attract a number of desperate debtors, and, though the chances are slim to none under the newest changes to the bankruptcy code statutes, some may have even have a chance to successfully wipe clean their unsecured debts (though it would also mean basically erasing the entirety of their possessions).

Because Chapter 7 bankruptcies do still remain a threat to their eventual bill collection, the credit card companies help fund the Consumer Credit Counseling companies so as to convince hapless borrowers to maintain and try to repay their loans, albeit in a different form. There are benefits to signing up with the program, to be sure. Interest rates are lower (not that they could actually be higher) and many of the creditors will agree to waive some of the fees assessed from over limit accounts or payments that arrived too late. However, considering the amount of money Consumer Credit Counseling professionals would charge for the opportunity – and, also, keeping in mind how damaging the Consumer Credit Counseling approach would be to the prospective client’s credit ratings once entered – most every applicant should be able to search out a better route to debt management success.

Debt settlement is another form of debt management rising in publicity the past few years, and these types of companies have many similar features to Consumer Credit Counseling firms. Both industries, after all, ask borrowers to sign over their collected debts (once again, primarily those unsecured ones which would be affected by bankruptcy protection). The debt settlement industry, however, does have a national certification program with which borrowers may rely upon to ensure that the people that they are dealing with could be properly trusted. Furthermore, since the underlying principles behind debt settlement thoroughly guarantees that there will be no collusion between the debt management professionals and the credit card companies, consumers do not have to worry about their counselors serving two masters. With debt settlement, the specialists working upon the specific case maintain an adversarial (though, as you’d imagine, still friendly for business purposes) relationship with the credit card companies so as to negotiate a reduction of their clients’ total balances. The debt settlement representatives have no reason to ever do anything more than work for the debtors’ best interests. That’s the only way their careers and the industry as a whole will survive and thrive within the new economic realities.

No matter the foundations of the debt settlement industry’s guiding principles, however, there still exists (as always will, with any possible employment opportunity) desperate scavengers aiming to take advantage of their clients’ ignorance and neediness regarding complicated financial matters. As we have said, these few practitioners of economic scams are found sooner rather than later and let go, but borrowers must always be wary of any debt management specialist that insists upon his or her fees paid up front. Initial consultations, by industry standard, should always be free of charge. They are, after all, trying to impress the clients with their professionalism so as to win their business, and it is highly suspicious that they would ask for money before they have even begun to do their job. Debt management must garner the trust of both the debtors and the creditors. Do not take the advice of anyone that you believe would be purely out for the quick buck.

For that matter, there are also any number of less than legal financial ploys that may sound like normal business practices but, in actuality, would leave the borrower open to charges of fraud. In the same way the malfeasant loan officers may urge homeowners to go with appraisers promising to pump up home values to tens of thousands of dollars more than the properties are actually worth or fool with pay stubs and tax records to suggest greater gross incomes than the true earnings, some debt management professionals might even advice that their client ask for a different Employee Identification Number. The purpose of altering Employee Identification Numbers is purely to trick lenders into disregarding credit report information and would be thought of as highly fraudulent behavior punishable by the fullest extent of the law. Before signing off on any such activity, make sure that you contact an attorney or – at the least – read up on the consequences of such actions. Whatever minimal savings may result from these sort of tactics are hardly worth the legal struggles that may ensue.

All of these warnings are not meant to turn prospective borrowers away from the good that proper and law abiding debt management counselors could do for household dearly in need of debt relief. The overwhelming majority of specialists working in these fields obey the strict letter of the law and, even beyond that, the specific rules of their chosen field. Most debt professionals enter the industry because they enjoy helping borrowers climb through the thickets of debts and find a better life for themselves and their families. Do not assume, just because of a few bad apples, that debt management specialists should be considered suspicious solely because of the nature of their work. As with any profession – from mechanics to congressmen – there are always bound to be a few brigands only out for themselves, but, with careful study of their company and a close reading of precisely what they are attempting to do, it is not that difficult to figure out which ones you should trust.

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