FOUR: AVOIDING SCAMS

Turning to a business that offers help in solving debt problems may seem like a reasonable solution when your bills become unmanageable. Be cautious. Before you do business with any company, check it out with your local consumer protection agency or the Better Business Bureau in the company's location.


ADS PROMISING DEBT RELIEF MAY BE OFFERING BANKRUPTCY

Consumer debt is at an all-time high. What's more, a record number of consumers-nearly 1.5 million in 2001-are filing for bankruptcy. Whether your debt dilemma is the result of an illness, unemployment, or overspending, it can seem overwhelming. In your effort to get solvent, be on the alert for advertisements that offer seemingly quick fixes. While the ads pitch the promise of debt relief, they rarely say relief may be spelled b-a-n-k-r-u-p-t-c-y. And although bankruptcy is one option to deal with financial problems, it's generally considered the option of last resort.

The reason: it has a long-term negative impact on your creditworthiness. A bankruptcy stays on your credit report for 10 years, and can hinder your ability to get credit, a job, insurance, or even a place to live.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cautions consumers to read between the lines when faced with ads in newspapers, magazines, or even telephone directories that say:

"Consolidate your bills into one monthly payment without borrowing"

"STOP credit harassment, foreclosures, repossessions,
tax levies and garnishments"

"Keep Your Property"

"Wipe out your debts! Consolidate your bills! How?
By using the protection and assistance provided by federal law. For once, let the law work for you!"

You'll find out later that such phrases often involve bankruptcy proceedings, which can hurt your credit and cost you attorneys' fees.

ADVANCE-FEE LOAN SCAMS

These scams often target consumers with credit problems or consumers who have difficulty getting credit. In exchange for an up-front fee, these companies guarantee that applicants will get the credit they want-usually a credit card or a personal loan.

The up-front fee may range from $100 to several hundred dollars. Resist the temptation to follow up on advance-fee loan guarantees. They may be illegal. Many legitimate creditors offer extensions of credit, such as credit cards, loans, and mortgages, through telemarketing and require an application fee or appraisal fee in advance. But legitimate creditors never guarantee in advance that you'll get the loan. Under the federal Telemarketing Sales Rule, a seller or telemarketer who guarantees or represents a high likelihood of your getting a loan or some other extension of credit may not ask for or receive payment until you've received the loan.

Recognizing an Advance-Fee Loan Scam

There are many fraudulent loan brokers and other individuals misrepresenting the availability of credit and credit terms. One of their favorite strategies is the "advance-fee" loan scam. That's where they claim to guarantee that they can get a loan or other type of credit for you-but you must pay a fee before you apply.

Ads for advance-fee loans often appear in the classified ad section of local and national newspapers and magazines. They also may appear in mailings, radio spots, and on local cable stations. Often, these ads feature "900" numbers, which result in charges on your phone bill. In addition, these companies often use delivery systems other than the U.S. Postal Service, such as overnight or courier services, to avoid detection and prosecution by postal authorities.

Don't confuse a legitimate credit offer with an advance-fee loan scam. An offer for credit from a bank, savings and loan, or mortgage broker generally requires your verbal or written acceptance of the loan or credit offer. The offer usually is subject to a check of your credit report after you apply to make sure you meet their credit standards. You are usually not required to pay a fee in order to get the credit.

Be suspicious of anyone who calls you on the phone and says they can guarantee you will get a loan if you pay in advance. Hang up. It's against the law.

Protecting Yourself

Here are some points to keep in mind before you respond to ads that promise easy credit, regardless of your credit history:

Most legitimate lenders will not "guarantee" that you will get a loan or a credit card before you apply, especially if you have bad credit, or a bankruptcy.

It is an accepted and common practice for reputable lenders to require payment for a credit report or appraisal. You also may have to pay a processing or application fee.

Never give your credit card account number, bank account information, or Social Security number out over the telephone unless you are familiar with the company and know why the information is necessary.


CREDIT REPAIR SCAMS

You see the ads in newspapers, on TV, and on the Internet. You hear them on the radio. You get fliers in the mail. You may even get calls from telemarketers offering credit repair services. They all make the same claims:

"Credit problems? No problem!"

"We can erase your bad credit-100% guaranteed."

"Create a new credit identity-legally."

"We can remove bankruptcies, judgments, liens,
and bad loans from your credit file forever!"

Do yourself a favor and save some money too. Don't believe these statements. Only time, a conscientious effort, and a plan for repaying your debt will improve your credit report.

The Scam

Every day, companies nationwide appeal to consumers with poor credit histories. They promise, for a fee, to clean up your credit report so you can get a car loan, a home mortgage, insurance, or even a job. The truth is, they can't deliver. After you pay them hundreds or thousands of dollars in up-front fees, these companies do nothing to improve your credit report; many simply vanish with your money.

The Warning Signs

If you decide to respond to a credit repair offer, beware of companies that:

want you to pay for credit repair services before any services are provided;

do not tell you your legal rights and what you can do-yourself-for free;

recommend that you not contact a credit bureau directly;
suggest that you try to invent a "new" credit report by applying for an Employer Identification Number to use instead of your Social Security number;or

advise you to dispute all information in your credit report or take any action that seems illegal, such as creating a new credit identity.

If you follow illegal advice and commit fraud, you may be subject to prosecution. You could be charged and prosecuted for mail or wire fraud if you use the mail or telephone to apply for credit and provide false information. It's a federal crime to make false statements on a loan or credit application, to misrepresent your Social Security number, and to obtain an Employer Identification Number from the Internal Revenue Service under false pretenses.


THE CREDIT REPAIR ORGANIZATIONS ACT

By law, credit repair organizations must give you a copy of the "Consumer Credit File Rights Under State and Federal Law" before you sign a contract. They also must give you a written contract that spells out your rights and obligations. Read these documents before signing the contract. The law contains specific consumer protections. For example, a credit repair company cannot:

make false claims about their services;

charge you until they have completed the promised services; or

perform any services until they have your signature on a written contract and have completed a three-day waiting period. During this time, you can cancel the contract without paying any fees.

Your contract must specify:

the payment for services, including their total cost;

a detailed description of the services to be performed;

how long it will take to achieve the results;

any guarantees they offer; and

the company's name and business address.

If You Are A Victim - Where to Complain...

If you've had a problem with any of the scams described here, contact your local consumer protection agency, state Attorney General (AG), or Better Business Bureau. Many AGs have toll-free consumer hotlines. Check with your local directory assistance.

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