How to choose a reputable credit counselor

FTC website

When you have a lot of debt, you're a natural target for companies that claim they can help.

Unfortunately, many are only looking to help themselves, which can leave you in worse shape than when you started.

Before you sign up for credit counseling or debt consolidation, go the Federal Trade Commission website and learn about all the potential traps.

The Washington state Attorney General's website can also help keep you out of trouble.

Consumer advocates at find too many people skip the research.

"A big red flag for you is if they guarantee that you'll somehow get some debt relief, if they guarantee to increase your credit score," warned Checkbook Executive Editor Kevin Brasler.

Avoid offers from companies that quarantee they can reduce debt or repair your credit profile.

Steer clear of companies that demand high up-front fees and monthly payments.

Don't deal with anyone who wants details of your financial situation before they'll give you educational material or any provide information about who they are and how they work.

"Another big problem people have is, yeah, they consolidate your debt, but then they stick you with an even higher interest payment than you had before. And that's not solving anything for you," Brasler said.

Look for a debt counseling service that provides free information and without getting into your business.

Make sure the fees are nominal- typically $50 dollars or less a month, depending on your income.

And make sure they're organization is certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. That assures you're dealing with someone working in your best interest- with one-on-one counseling over the phone or in person.

Keep in mind that some so-called non-profits may merely be non-profit fronts for profit centered companies. So even if they claim to be a non-profit, make sure their certified as a non-profit debt counseling organization.

According to the NFCC, there are two certified, non-profit credit counseling agencies based in the Puget Sound region- American Financial Solutions, and Money Management International, which uses the acronym MMI.

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