NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
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If you've ever considered calling a credit counseling agency -- even for a nanosecond -- after driving by a screaming billboard, brace yourself. Congress recently made credit counseling mandatory for anyone considering bankruptcy, and the government has just released its first-ever list of approved counselors.
All this means more potential customers, a fresh patina of legitimacy for some established agencies and a parade of deals throughout the industry designed to lure you into paying for help getting out of debt.
There are already signs of firms looking to cash in on the new law. Last April, software company Integrant touted DebtLogic Fast Track, which for $2,500 promises to have an agency up and running in as little as two weeks. July's meeting of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies drew 200 attendees, the most ever. And dozens of agencies are still waiting to see if they'll make the government's roster.
If you're looking for help paying down credit-card debt, don't let Uncle Sam's first stab at a list be a false comfort, persuading you that all's well in an industry that last year a Senate committee said was plagued with "excessive fees...poor service and [customers] generally being left in worse debt than when they initiated their debt-management programs."
(Indeed, last March, AmeriDebt, once one of the largest credit counselors in the business, paid $170 million in fines for misleading customers.)
A big problem is the industry's conflict of interest. Credit counselors help people lower their credit-card interest rates, charging 6 to 15 percent of the customers' payments each month. But the agencies also get a fee from credit-card companies for collecting the debt. Some say this arrangement hurts the counselors' ability -- and incentive -- to negotiate for you.
Go it alone
Scott Bilker, founder of Debtsmart.com, says you can haggle with credit-card companies just as well as counselors do.
Threatening to switch cards could inspire the issuer to drop your rate three points or so. Promise to pay on time for three months and follow through, and they'll likely drop it further.
Make a plan
Use our online debt calculator to figure out how much you need to pay each month to meet your debt-free goal.
Get a consultation -- and leave
You can usually visit a debt counselor for a free consultation. At a minimum, you'll come away with a quickie solution that may include some good tips. (You'll probably also be offered an expensive debt-management plan. Decline.)
Pick a winner
If you decide you really need help from a counselor, start with the government's list at www.usdoj.gov/ust. But don't stop there. Favor firms associated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (at www.nfcc.org), which at least has an accreditation process -- many of its members are on the government list.
And always check with the Better Business Bureau, at www.bbb.org. According to its most recent tally, complaints against counselors were up 75 percent in one year. Yikes!
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Paying down a debt? First, assess the problem.
Click here to read more about the rush to file for bankruptcy before new laws take effect.