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Debt Settlement Services

If you are struggling with credit card debts and are falling several months behind on payments, you've probably heard claims from debt settlement services like, "We can help you be debt-free in 12-36 months!" or "Eliminate all your credit card debt for pennies on the dollar!" If you think those claims sound too good to be true, the fact is, most of them are -- or, at least, they don't apply as a general rule for all consumers. However, debt settlement has fast become a legitimate, legal way for many consumers to reduce debt without declaring bankruptcy.

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Under a debt settlement program, also known as debt negotiation or debt mediation, companies may agree to "settle" your debt for a lesser amount than what you owe. Unlike companies that offer a debt consolidation loan or a debt management plan to repay the full amount of debt, companies that offer debt settlement services typically advise their clients to stop paying their bills and instead, save up cash that is then used to extend a one-time, lump-sum settlement to creditors.

If you are considering the debt settlement approach, it's a good idea to be aware of some of the potential outcomes and risks. First, consider the cost and time involved. Many debt settlement services charge 14% to 18% of the total value of the debt you want settled, while others charge a percentage of the debt savings-usually 25%--once you settle. Some debt settlement services used to charge initial fees before they even begin to settle your debt. Another important consideration is the actual services a debt settlement company offers.

Ideally, they will help you negotiate your debts, and help you deal with collection agencies. But, be aware that some creditors, once they know that you are working with a debt settlement company, may escalate their efforts of sending you to a collection agency or even sue you. Also, debt settlement may be damaging to your credit, so keep this in mind when you are considering this approach.

Consumer Protection

Beginning October 27, 2010, the federal government has made it more difficult for unscrupulous debt settlement companies to charge you upfront fees and make unsubstantiated claims that they can easily erase your debt. Since 2007, the Better Business Bureau has received thousands of complaints about debt negotiation companies that have driven people deeper into debt. In response to these complaints, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) now requires debt-relief companies to make specific disclosures to potential clients-such as how long it will take to settle their debts, how much the service will cost, and the potential negative consequences that could result from getting debt relief services.

This means that it will be illegal for debt reduction or settlement services to charge upfront fees, and that companies that sell their services over the telephone won't be able to get paid until they successfully reduce or settle a customer's unsecured debt. Lawyers who provide face-to-face legal debt relief consultation and negotiations for consumers are exempt from the new law.

Benefits of a Debt Management Program

While debt settlement is one approach that may be effective for some consumers, it may not work for others. For some people, enlisting the help of credit counseling agencies and companies that offer debt management services may be another option. Under a debt management program (DMP), your unsecured debts (like medical bills, department store charges, or even utilities) will typically be consolidated into one, more structured, and more manageable monthly payment that will be made to a credit counseling agency-who, acting on your behalf, will then distribute your monthly payment to various creditors based on the plan they have worked out with your creditors.

With debt management, you are paying back all of your debts-just at a lower interest rate and ideally, at an amount you can afford each month. Another possible solution is a debt consolidation loan. Companies that offer debt consolidation services will typically take multiple high interest rate debts and combine them into a single, lower interest rate loan. No matter which option you take. if you have fallen into the debt quagmire, it is important to know that you have a variety of debt relief options -- from taking personal steps of debt relief such as paying down balances and avoiding new debt to enlisting the services of debt management or debt settlement services.

Choosing a Debt Relief Company

If you do go the route of professional debt relief services, choose your company wisely, make sure it has a positive BBB rating, and clearly understand how much debt relief can potentially save you, as well as how long it is likely to take before you realize those savings. Also, understand all the credit, legal, and tax implications that may exist with any debt relief program.

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