Working with a Certified Credit Counselor
When you’re looking for financial advice, you would hope there are two things you can count on from the person on the end of the phone:
- They know what they are talking about
- They have your best interest in mind
That is why it’s important that your call is answered by a certified credit counselor who works for an accredited credit counseling agency.
Certified and accredited are the keywords here. They mean that an independent organization has verified that the counselor knows what they are talking about and that the agency has your best interest in mind.
What Does a Credit Counselor Do?
Certified credit counselors are trained in general money management, credit card debt, bankruptcy, housing and student loans.
During a credit counseling session, they will conduct an interview to get an understanding of your financial situation and the problems you’re having. They will go over your budget, and if you don’t have one, help you create one so you can see for yourself where the money is going every month.
They will use their certified training and experience to offer advice on how to deal with the problem or problems you’re having and recommend the best possible solution.
Credit Counselor & Accredited Agency Certifications
To become certified, a credit counselor is required to pass an exam that tests their financial knowledge and ability to guide a consumer through a credit counseling session. Two of the largest independent certifiers are the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA).
Look for those initials – NFCC or FCAA – when searching for a credit counseling agency.
Now, in order for credit counselors to be certified, the agency they work for must be accredited by a separate organization. These organizations provide standards to protect the rights of consumers. Two of the more prominent accreditation institutions are the Council On Accreditation (COA) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Grants provide a huge incentive for nonprofit credit counseling agencies to uphold these standards and retain accreditation year-after-year. A good deal of their revenue come from grants, which are awarded with the requirement that the agency be accredited.
How to Find a Certified Credit Counselor
There are three ways to find a certified credit counselor.
- Consult the NFCC – The NFCC is the largest nonprofit financial counseling organization in the U.S. You can call them at 800-338-2227 or go to their website to find one of their accredited counseling agencies convenient to you. Most counseling is done online or over the phone, but you can visit member agencies in person.
- Consult the FCAA – The FCAA is a member-supported association representing agencies that provide consumer credit counseling as well as counseling on housing, student loans, bankruptcy, debt management and financial education. Go to their website and you can use the drop down menu to find the service and agency you need.
- The U.S. Department of Justice – The Justice Department has a database with a list of approved providers for each state. Select your state in the drop-down menu, and you’ll be given the name, website, phone number and address of each credit counseling agency. Note that the list is of approved providers, so not every agency will be physically located in your state. But you can still get counseling over the phone or online.
You should do further research on whichever company you select. At the bare minimum, find some customer review sites to be certain they provide the help you need and the quality of service you expect.
Questions to Ask before Working with a Credit Counselor
It’s a good idea to prepare a list of questions that can be answered over the phone or on the company’s website.
Many of the answers you’re looking for involve a debt management plan, which is the primary service provided by many of these nonprofit credit counseling agencies. Debt management consolidates your monthly bills into one payment, while working with creditors to lower interest rates and sometimes waive late fees.
Narrowing the field to reputable credit counseling agencies should help you weed out the agencies that do not have your best interest in mind.
- Where do your counselors receive training and certification? Make sure the agency’s counselors are trained and certified by an independent organization.
- How are your employees paid? Try to find out if the counselors work for incentives. Some agencies will pressure counselors to enroll clients despite being best suited for alternative solutions.
- What are the fees for your services? Credit counseling should be free. Many agencies provide additional services like debt management. Find out what the fees are for these services. Can they lower your interest rates or waive late payment fees?
- What if I can’t afford the fees? Do they have hardship programs that might help with the debt management fees?
- Do I have to sign an agreement? Get the terms in writing before signing up for a program.
- Is there a minimum or maximum amount of debt I must have to use your service? Find out if there are eligibility requirements.
Warning Signs of Credit Counseling Fraud
If you are considering a credit counseling agency and they ask for “voluntary contributions” or “up-front money”, that should be considered a warning sign that you are dealing with a fraudulent business.
There are federal laws against charging “up front” fees for credit counseling, yet some companies still do it.
Consumers should not have to pay for the initial budgeting session. Any fees after that can only be charged if you sign up for a service and those services have been delivered, according to the Telemarketing Sales Rule.
This law, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, requires that debt-relief companies explain fees before you sign up for any of their services. It also states that credit counseling agencies cannot collect a fee for a debt management plan until you have enrolled and made at least one payment to creditors using the DMP.
About The Author
Tom Jackson focuses on writing about debt solutions for consumers struggling to make ends meet. His background includes time as a columnist for newspapers in Washington D.C., Tampa and Sacramento, Calif., where he reported and commented on everything from city and state budgets to the marketing of local businesses and how the business of professional sports impacts a city. Along the way, he has racked up state and national awards for writing, editing and design. Tom’s blogging on the 2016 election won a pair of top honors from the Florida Press Club. A University of Florida alumnus, St. Louis Cardinals fan and eager-if-haphazard golfer, Tom splits time between Tampa and Cashiers, N.C., with his wife of 40 years, college-age son, and Spencer, a yappy Shetland sheepdog.
- N.A. (2018, January) NFCC Begin a brighter financial future today. Retrieved from https://www.nfcc.org/
- N.A. (2018, January) Find a Credit Counseling Agency. Retrieved from https://fcaa.org/about-fcaa/
- N.A. (2018, June 22) List of Credit Counseling Agencies Approved Pursuant to 11 U.S.C 111. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/ust/list-credit-counseling-agencies-approved-pursuant-11-usc-111
- N.A. (2012, November) Choosing a Credit Counselor. Retrieved from https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0153-choosing-credit-counselor