Debt can be a crushing burden and debt settlement services promise to renegotiate terms for their customers, helping to ease things along financially. Unfortunately, like any financial service, it takes a thorough understanding of the process to make sure that you end up with the best debt settlement service.
And that’s not counting the innumerable fake companies and scams that haunt this type of service. So, if you’re looking to help get your debt handled then you’ll want to read carefully. Finding a reputable company that’s right for you can be hard, but in the end it will be well worth it.
Debt settlement companies act as middlemen to negotiate with creditors on behalf of the debtor.
If a settlement is reached then it’s most often in the form of a lump payment which comprises a portion of the debt owed. The percentage varies depending on the creditor and the negotiations but one can usually assume that it’ll run from 30-70% of the amount due.
In most cases an account will have to be delinquent for some time before the negotiations can take place. Roughly six months seems to be the standard.
The customer will be charged a fee for negotiations
While a person can negotiate their own debt in many cases that ends in failure. Creditors aren’t obligated to negotiate a settlement which can lead to sticky situations for the debtor. As middlemen a reputable debt settlement company is essentially selling you their experience, time, and possibly connections to help eliminate debt at a lower cost than the customer would be able to negotiate on their own.
The most important factors for a potential client is the amount of debt they’re carrying and the types of debt. Before someone even begins to look for a debt settlement company they should know the exact amount of their total debt and which sources it comes from.
Once that information is in hand, the following are all things to look for to make sure that there’s a good fit.
All companies in the debt settlement arena will be able to help with basic credit card debt and medical debt. If a potential client owes money in another place, however, things can be more complicated.
It pays off to make sure that the company will help settle all applicable types of debt before contacting them.
Business debt, some secured debts, and others will make the whole process a lot trickier and limit the companies that the customer can work with if they’re looking for settlement from the entire burden of their debt.
Even with the best companies you may not be able to settle all of your debt. Things like mortgages or financed vehicles that are secured by extensive collateral are almost never settled for instance. There’s simply no incentive for the bank to come to an agreement when they can reclaim the property.
Industry standards for timelines between contracting the company and having debt completely settled is usually two to four years.
Obviously, the closer to the lower portion of that range the better for most clients.
Depending on what’s available to the customer some companies can settle more quickly than the average.
Just as important is that the company is open about their timelines. Many consumers make the mistake of walking in and thinking that this will all be over soon and find themselves in what amounts to prolonged bankruptcy.
Because debt settlement fees are usually a percentage of the total debt most companies have a minimum amount that they’ll work with. The amount of required debt is usually $10,000 or more.
While you can sometimes negotiate if you’re near the margin it’s best to look for a company where you’re close to the threshold since the majority of cases they handle will fall around that amount.
It’s wise to keep in mind that since 2010 the FTC has forbidden charges from occurring before a debt settlement firm has reached an agreement with creditors,
The law’s intention is to protect consumers from paying large fees upfront before a company failed to reach a settlement with the client’s various debtors.
Any US company which violates this policy is violating the law.
More importantly, fees for debt settlement services are usually a percentage of the total debt that’s being settled. This ranges from a low end of around 15% to upwards of 30% depending on the company.
Lower fees are more desirable for the client but the potential customer should double check any company which seems to have suspiciously low fees.
It’s also a good idea to make sure you know if you’ll be charged for an escrow account before committing. Most debt settlement companies will have their clients post money to one of these accounts to make sure that the money for the settlement is present and it can be a requirement to use one for that firm. Just be aware of the cost before making the final decision.
Many debt settlement companies also offer other ways of mitigating debt. While someone may not currently be interested in an alternative form of credit management, it’s a good sign that the company is solid.
The most common “other” service offered is debt consolidation, which is a negotiation that puts all of a person’s debt into one easy payment with a lower interest rate.
Even if a client knows for a fact that debt settlement is what they need to get out of their situation the extra services usually point to a larger, better-ran company than those which only offer settlements.
Even if a company offers exactly what the client needs there’s some digging to be done. Debt settlement is rife with scams and can do more harm than good if you’re not working with the right people.
Pay attention to all of the following before settling on a company as the perfect solution.
Any reputable debt settlement company will be credited by both the AFCC and the BBB. Those which have some longevity are likely to have other certifications as well.
Any company which is worth the money will proudly display their certifications, they help sort them from shady fly-by-night operations that can end up hurting more than the debt gained in the first place.
Even some companies with a less than sterling reputation have these accreditations however.
Before settling on a company the best bet is to make sure you check them out on the Better Business Bureau website and see how their reputation stands as a whole.
Companies which have been in business for longer have the advantage here.
Debt settlement is a complicated mess and personal relationships between companies and banks is a huge part of it. Those who’ve been in business for longer will have deeper connections.
More than that, companies which regularly fail to meet client standards don’t last for long in such a competitive field. Knowing that a company has been helping out with debt for a long time can give the customer peace of mind.
That’s not to say that newer companies can’t be great for the consumer but in an industry built on personal relationships and customer service using a fresh company can be quite risky.
For those with a need for shrinking their debt quickly, reputation should matter above anything else.
Online reviews are a great way to check a company out. Debt settlement is expensive and people going down this road are very committed to the course of action, any bumps along the way are sure to be reported.
Check with the BBB first, of course, but other review sites should quickly let you get a read on any individual company. Try to look for pages which verify their reviewers when deciding who to trust.
One thing to be wary of is unverified reviews. It’s a relatively common practice for a new company in the industry to pay for positive reviews, leading to a great first impression that the company may not live up to.
Pricing, minimum debt amounts, and a rough timespan should be available to the customer without any hassle on their part. A company which operates in this way is far less likely to land a customer with surprise costs later.
If a company promises to cut your debt in half but doesn’t name their cut and fees of the debt from the outset a customer can end up in over their heads quite easily.
Avoid any company which makes it hard to determine your costs from the outset.
While it’s not always the case a company which is evasive about their charges and costs is more likely to be a thorn in the side than being able to coordinate a life-changing debt settlement.
They should also be upfront about the states that they’re allowed to operate in. Debt settlement regulations are often enacted on a state level so a company has to meet certain standards to legally do business within that state.
Many larger companies can work across the US but smaller companies should be clear about what states they can help clients in. A lack of transparency inevitably means there was something to hide in the first place.
Debt settlement isn’t an easy matter and the customer needs to be sure that they can get ahold of the right person when they have questions.
While 24/7 customer service is unlikely, if a company has a reputation for being hard to get ahold of you should definitely consider giving them a pass.
The rates for debt settlement vary from company to company by quite a bit.
The biggest part of the transaction is always going to come from the cut the company takes. On average the fees will run from 10%-30% of the total debt.
Keep in mind that’s the debt before the settlement occurs in most cases. The prudent client will make sure they know if they’re paying a percentage of the gross debt or the settlement amount before they begin to use the company.
If you owe $10,000 and settle for $5,000 at a 10% fee, you’ll still owe the company $1,000.
The other fee associated with debt settlement often comes from the fact that they’ll use a third party escrow service to hold money for the lump settlement. The majority of companies will charge you a monthly fee for using this third party account.
Not every debt settlement company uses these third party escrow accounts, however. Whether you need one or not is a personal decision but compared to the overall cost of a debt settlement in the first place, it’s often a wise option.
When someone’s back is against the wall with rising debt it can be hard to determine what the right choice is. Debt settlement is a drastic option, something like a slow motion bankruptcy, but there are times when it’s simply needed.
The important thing is to calculate the total as much as possible before making the commitment. A good debt settlement agreement will rarely end with you paying more than 50-60% of the debt and even at the high end of fees the client should come out ahead.
Strictly speaking about money, debt settlement is often a good choice. However, running close to 90% isn’t ideal for a few reasons:
Late fees and surcharges still accrue while you’re not paying and before the settlement occurs.
The reduced debt is considered taxable income by the IRS.
It will damage your credit in the short term.
Because of these extra factors it’s important to make sure you’re not digging a deeper hole than you’re already in.
In general, if you can manage to keep under paying roughly 75% of the original debt in total you’ll still come out ahead. When things get much higher than that the debtor may want to take a more complete look at other options before deciding debt settlement is the way to go.
Even though the FTC stopped the majority of past scams by forcing debt settlement firms to actually finish negotiations before taking their cut, the industry is still rife with scam artists and bad actors.
Proper debt settlement should reduce how much a client is paying overall, the real price is in the damage to their credit.
However, there are a few things that the wise customer should look out for when they’re considering a company to make sure that the service ends up helping more than hurting your financial situation:
Any form of guarantee of debt settlement
Promising to stop calls from creditors and collection agencies
Any charges before negotiations are complete
Promoting a “new government program”
Being pushed to sign before a full financial review has taken place
Any sort of wavering on whether or not your credit will be hurt
They aren’t open about what states they operate in
The last one isn’t necessarily a complete deal breaker but many moderately sized firms will operate anywhere someone will pay them without necessarily making sure they’re in line with state regulations. That leaves the burden on the client to know their rights within the state.
All of the others are good signs that something is amiss in the company and it wouldn’t be prudent to trust them with your financial situation.
Q: How do I know debt settlement is right for my situation?
A: If you’re using a reputable company you’ll often find that they offer more than just settlements. During a review of your financial situation these companies can advise their potential clients on whether or not it’s the best option. Credit management, debt consolidation, and even filing for bankruptcy may end better for the individual client and a reputable company will let you know during the review.
Q: How bad is debt settlement compared to bankruptcy for my credit?
A: Bankruptcy leaves a much bigger black mark on your credit score in virtually every case. Honestly, however, debt settlement isn’t far behind. This is doubly true if the company advises you to quit paying off the debt during the negotiation process.
Q: Is there any guarantee that my debt can be settled?
A: None. In fact, some financial institutions outright refuse to work with debt settlement agents at all. If that’s the case for a client then they’ll have to deal with the bank on their own terms. Chase is the most prominent example but it’s wise to check the terms with each creditor before contacting the firm of your choosing.
Q: Can a private individual negotiate their own debt settlement?
A: Many banks are willing to work with their customers when it comes to settlement. With some this may be the only option available at all. While an individual can certainly attempt to handle the matter themselves firms which specialize in debt settlement will most likely be able to negotiate a better rate overall. It can also save the client a lot of time which would be spent dealing with banks.
Q: How long does a debt settlement stay on my credit record?
A: You’ll receive a mark on your credit for settling a debt rather than paying it in full. As a general rule it will affect your score for seven years afterwards. However, the exact date from which the seven years begins varies. If there’s no history of missed payments then the date of the final settlement is when the seven years begins, for those who’ve missed payments the seven years begins with the date of the first delinquent payment.