Till Debt Do Us Part

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Who to Trust?

Debt Consolidation

The Claim: Consolidating all of your debts into one loan, such as a second mortgage or a home equity line of credit, will save you money and simplify your life.

The Truth: Depending on your situation, a debt-consolidation loan can be a smart strategy -- or a risky one. On the plus side, interest on a second mortgage or home equity line of credit is usually tax deductible, and the rate may be lower than that which you're currently paying on your credit cards. The downside? "You can lose your home if you can't make the payments," says Chris Long, a fee-only certified financial planner in Chicago. "If you can't pay off your credit cards, your credit will be trashed, but you won't lose your home." For this reason, Long recommends this strategy only for people whose debt was the result of a specific circumstance, such as an illness or a short-term job loss, and who now have the means to pay off the loan.

The Cost: When you take out a second mortgage or home equity line of credit, you may have to pay points or other fees. One point equals 1 percent of the loan amount. Ask several lenders for a good-faith estimate and compare their fees and interest rates carefully before you make a decision.

Caution: Some lenders may talk up the convenience of making just one monthly payment in an effort to push you into paying off all your debts, including your primary mortgage, with a consolidation loan. But that's not always a good move, particularly if some of your debts are close to being paid off or have a lower interest rate than the new loan.

Debt Settlement

The Claim: Debt settlement, sometimes called debt negotiation, will reduce the total amount of your debt by 40 to 60 percent or sometimes more, with no negative impact on your credit report.

The Truth: Not to be confused with debt-management plans, debt settlement is a risky proposition, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). These companies don't always contact your creditors as promised. Even if they do, there's no guarantee that a creditor will agree to take less than you owe. Plus, debt settlement may negatively impact your credit report. These companies usually tell you to stop paying your creditors while they negotiate. They may even collect payments from you, promising to pay the creditors on your behalf. "What they don't really explain is that they're going to hold your monthly payments until they have several thousand dollars, and then they're going to use that amount to negotiate with your credit card company," Allen Gilbert says. "Credit card companies do agree sometimes. But you fall severely past due in the process." Even if a settlement is reached, your failure to pay will still show up on your credit report, because creditors are obligated by law to report accurate information to credit bureaus.

The Cost: Fees vary but may include an up-front payment plus a percentage of your debt. Debt Resolution Specialists, which was based in Santa Clarita, California, before an FTC investigation shut it down for misleading consumers, charged from 6 to 15 percent of the debt negotiated.

Caution: These companies often claim to be nonprofit and say that their services are guaranteed or your money will be refunded. Don't buy it.

Credit Repair

The Claim: Your credit report will be cleared of all bankruptcies, late or missed payments, repossessions, and other negative information that harms your credit rating.

The Truth: No one can eliminate negative information from your credit report if it's accurate and not due to be removed (usually after seven years or, in the case of a bankruptcy, 10). In the past couple of years the FTC has taken action against at least 20 credit-repair operations that were charging hundreds of dollars in up-front fees for promises they couldn't fulfill. One company, Bad Credit B Gone, claimed that "on average, 80 percent of derogatory information is deleted off your credit report." (That company has since been ordered by the court to stop misleading consumers and to stop charging for services it can't perform.) Many credit-repair operations simply disappear with your money. Others may file a dispute claim for every negative event on your credit report in hopes that some of your creditors may not return the paperwork to the credit bureau to confirm the information. Without that confirmation, the hope is that the credit bureau may be forced to remove the disputed information.

The Cost: Scammers often charge hundreds of dollars for this bogus service (Bad Credit B Gone charged $500 for an individual, $700 per couple). If your credit report does have errors, you can dispute them yourself at no cost. You can request one free report per year from each of the three credit bureaus (visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228). Contact the consumer reporting company to dispute information.

Caution: Watch out for "file segregation" scams claiming to give you a new credit identity. The scammers may tell you to apply for an Employer Identification Number from the IRS to use in place of your Social Security number, which is illegal. When it comes to credit repair, says Long, "Save your money."

A Step Beyond Debt

You've sought help in handling your debt, but could you also use guidance in planning for your future?

 

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2008.

 

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