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If you are someone who, in the wake of the recent recession, is behind on credit card payments and lacking cash flow or just facing a financial hardship in general, you may be able to negotiate your credit card debt.
Negotiating, or settling, your debt means paying it off for much less than what you owe to your creditor. Just how much you pay is agreed upon by both you and your creditor, and typically there are professionals (often lawyers) who step in to help you come to this negotiated amount.
While debt settlement is often a last resort because of the damage it can do to your credit score, it could be worth it for anyone struggling with an unmanageable credit card balance that could otherwise go unpaid.
Below, CNBC Select spoke with Leslie Tayne, a debt-relief attorney and founder of Tayne Law Group, on where to start negotiating credit card debt, how to find the right support and what you can expect.
If you believe you match the criteria for someone who is need of debt settlement, meaning you simply cannot afford your delinquent debt and can't make the minimum payments, your first step is to do your research.
While searching for debt resolution programs, look for a local debt-relief lawyer or debt professional like a credit counselor by visiting a credit counseling company, like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. You can also check with your state Attorney General and/or local consumer protection agency for a reputable debt-relief law firm. The best debt settlement companies should be accredited and have a Better Business Bureau rating of A+.
Tayne suggests finding someone who is well versed not only with creditors, but with tax and credit matters as well. They'll know the ins and outs of the process and have relationships in place already that you can benefit from.
"Because they do this for a living – and you should only go to someone who does this exclusively – they will have standing relationships with creditors, which can allow for more leverage and for an understanding of what different creditors are looking for in settlements," she says.
Unfortunately, finding the right professional to help with your debt management takes some time and effort.
"There are a lot of companies out there that claim they can help, but you want to be cautious about who you work with because there are many implications when resolving credit card debt," Tayne says.
Not all debt resolution programs are valid, so it's important to verify through the sources we listed above before moving forward.
When researching the best debt professionals to go to, your first clue is to make sure it's a human on the other end of the phone associated with a real company address, not a PO Box. Check the company's website beforehand to look for their contact information where a physical address would be listed and feel free to call them yourself and confirm.
Debt settler scams are all too common and something to watch out for as they like to solicit new customers.
"It's easy to buy information about you and your debt, so it may look legitimate, but you'll need to do your due diligence," Tayne says. "Nothing should be full of pressure and nothing should have promises."
It's a red flag that the debt settler could be a scam if they make any outright promises or guarantees about how much money they can save you or how much time it will take to come to an agreement.
"There are simply no guarantees in the resolution of debt ever," Tayne says. "Creditors change their policies frequently, and for anyone to make promises to you...is not acting in your best interest."
Essentially, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Tayne adds that the cost of these services depend on who you go to, but there shouldn't be any upfront fees that you have to pay in order to see results. Reputable professionals won't charge you before they've done any work for you. That means that the call to the debt relief company, as well as any conversation about services and potential solutions, should be free.
"We don't get paid until a client's account is resolved," Tayne says.
Start by knowing the exact amount of your debt and to whom you owe it. Make a list of who your creditors are, and gather all your financial documents, such as your credit report and credit card statements, that have this information. You can check your credit report weekly for free from each of the three credit bureaus on AnnualCreditReport.com.
"The professional you are working with will use this information to get a better understanding of your overall financial situation and how much you will be able to afford as monthly payments," Tayne says.
She also suggests writing down any questions that come up while you prepare your documents and to take your time when choosing a professional to help you. If you feel comfortable, have a Zoom meeting instead of a call (in the case you can't meet face-to-face during this time).
"You'll want to make sure all of the work is done with one office and not a call center," Tayne says. Call centers operate like sales centers, and they lack the one-on-one service that a reputable debt company would offer. This makes it a frustrating experience for you as the consumer and proves much more difficult to get status updates or answers.
"You want someone working for you that understands the financial piece of the puzzle and isn't working off of a sales script," she says.
A very important part of negotiating your credit card debt is understanding what to expect along the way so there are no surprises. Know that your credit score will likely be hurt during the process as you work on lowering your debt.
Your credit will continue to be impacted by late fees piling up and balances continuing to rise as you negotiate, but once your debt is paid off entirely your score can be on the rebound.
The timing of the whole process will depend on each client's case. Some cases may require a few phone calls, while other cases benefit from one or more in-person meetings that last an hour or more. "The total debt settlement process takes anywhere from one to five years depending on creditors, budget and complexity on average," Tayne says. "But that doesn't mean it can't be done sooner."
Tayne notes that although you might see a dip in your credit score, most of her clients report their scores going up before the negotiating process is done. And at the end of it all, your accounts will be up-to-date and your credit utilization rate will be much lower than before because you settled your balance and got rid of your debt. Both of these are factors that help boost your credit score.
Considering that the process of debt settlement is a last resort, first consider credit cards that offer no interest and help you pay off your debt. Most balance transfer cards require applicants to have a good credit score to qualify, but they can help you pay off your principal without worrying about interest charges. Just make sure you pay off your balance before the intro period ends. Some of our favorite zero-interest credit cards that offer balance transfers include the Citi Simplicity® Card, the U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card and the Wells Fargo Platinum Card.
If simply paying off your credit card debt isn't an option at this time and your balances are piling up, negotiating it can wipe it away for much less than the original amount.
"You can then look toward planning for the future and setting new financial goals without the weight of your debt," Tayne says.
Information about the Citi Simplicity® Card and U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
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