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The Truth About Debt Settlement Plans: Part I

Is debt settlement a realistic option?  As a Rhode Island Bankruptcy lawyer, I get calls daily from families who are struggling with excessive credit card debt.  If the credit card debt is less than $ 8,000, I rarely suggest bankruptcy as the solution, unless there is additional non-credit card debt that makes debt repayment impossible.

In every debt consultation, however, I ask what other solutions have been attempted to repay debt.  Then the stories of debt settlement attempts and debt management plans begin.  Many have paid large sums of money to finance a debt settlement plan that failed.  Hundreds and thousands of dollars were wasted on unrealistic plans that were doomed from the start.  Why does this happen to so many people?

The term “debt settlement plan” is a misleading one.  Most of the Rhode Island advertisements I have seen for this kind of debt settlement plan—whether on the internet, on television, or in phone books—are placed by “debt management” companies, also known as “credit counseling” companies. Despite their name, most of these companies only aim to get you to sign up for what they call “debt management plans” (DMPs) and do not give actual advice on credit. What you might not know is that credit card companies sponsor DMPs in order to collect money from you. In essence, then, “credit counseling” companies serve as bill-collectors for credit card companies.

The debt settlement advertisements run by these “credit counseling” companies are misleading as well. For example, when ads claim that DMPs will “reduce your debt by 60%,” they may lead you to believe that they will actually reduce the amount of your debt. However, the most a “credit counseling” company can do is reduce the interest on your credit card—and not by much. In reality, you still must pay your entire debt along with most of the interest. Ultimately, “debt settlement” plans do anything but do away with your debt.

Additionally, when setting you up with a “debt settlement plan,” “credit counseling” companies often fail to take all your expenses into account. This is usually because the plan they offer you is far more expensive than what you can afford to pay. Thus, although they promise to eliminate debt, DMPs do not bring you any closer to making ends meet. In fact, almost 90% of DMPs tank before completion. All said and done, the hope offered by DMPs is nothing but a scam—lowering the interest rates on your credit card by a few points is far from a financial fix.

What’s worse, “debt management” plans actually damage your credit. As part of an arrangement called “fair share,” credit card companies are paid a percentage of the amount that the “debt settlement” company collects from you. Thus, the more you pay a “debt settlement” company to get yourself out of debt, the more of your money goes to pay off the credit card companies. And as long as these companies can continue to milk you, they will—regardless of whether you can afford your plan or not.

One Caveat:  For those who only need help with budgeting, and have a modest amount of debt that can be reapaid comfortably in 24 months or less, I am the first to recommend a call to a local office of Money Management International.

About Mark Buckley

Consumer Bankruptcy, Estate Planning, and debt-settlement attorney licensed in RI & MA. I am the only bankruptcy lawyer who is a certified financial planner professional. 

To plan your estate, or resolve debt concerns, call me at (401) 467-6800.