Alongside the ongoing collapse of the American economy, with lender after lender filing for bankruptcy protection and real estate markets crumbling at the nation’s feet, there is, at least, one industry that continues to rise in both popularity and productivity. Yes, our debt management firms have shown exponential growth over the last few years, and, with the larger financial picture unlikely to change any time soon, consumers shall continue to flock to every company that promises a reduction of payments and interest rates for the debts that accumulated back in the good old days. You are, we’re sure, at least familiar with the notion of debt management.From billboards to television commercials to soft-sell magazine articles highlighting the various approaches, debt management has become a buzz word for all segments of the economy whether or not you’re trying to get out of a negative equity residence or simply trying to erase a few thousand dollars of credit card debt whose minimum payments you can no longer maintain. In the greater sense, for most borrowers, undertaking the process of debt management will be to your advantage regardless of the path you choose. While there are obvious drawbacks to Consumer Credit Counseling (FICO score wreckage resembling that of Chapter 7 bankruptcies) and home equity debt consolidation (incredibly dangerous in a time of tumbling property values), there remains a number of debt management forms – debt settlement negotiation, which can reduce borrowers’ balances by as much as fifty percent with a few phone calls for relatively low cost to the pocketbook or credit report, chief among them – that have demonstrable value to even the most dubious debtor.Of course, at the same point, for every good and legitimate debt management firm, there are others who are simply out to make the fast buck regardless of their client’s well being. In this article, we would like purely to highlight some of the more egregious complaints our correspondents have reported when attempting debt consolidation with the hope that you would be able to sniff out a malfeasant business and select one that truly has you and your family’s best interests in heart. Obviously, there is a good deal more investigation that needs to be done well before you even meet with a specific company.Considering all of the different approaches to debt management available, you have to make sure that you have a full and complete grasp of each one, from debt settlement to Consumer Credit Counseling and beyond, before even looking at the different possibilities in your area – or, these days, on the internet. Ask yourself: is it possible to pay off your credit cards and unsecured loans through traditional means in a reasonable amount of time? How important will your credit rating be to your plans over the near future? Do you plan to buy a house or refinance your current residence in the next few years? Do you want (or, even, need) to maintain some lines of credit available during the process of debt management? These are questions for another essay, we shan’t possibly have the space to outline every potentiality (nor, obviously, could we pretend to know your own specific financial scenario), but you can do so much of this sort of fact finding with just a little bit of research about debt management and all that the programs entail.Still, once you have decided upon a specific approach to follow, there are a number of warning signs to look out for when selecting your debt management company, and we would merely like to delve into a few of these threats. For one instance, you should always ensure that whichever firm you have considered working with requires all of the following data before they offer any sort of estimate: identity of each lender, the interest rates of each accounts, minimum (and, under unusual circumstances, maximum) payments requested from each lender, past and current late payments as noted (or about to be noted) upon your credit report, and, as well, any significant account activity which may include balance transfers or relatively greater purchases in recent years. If the company happily provides a quote without such information, this should seem highly suspicious to the borrower.Even after a cursory analysis of the household’s financial information, legitimate debt management companies should be loathe to give much more than the vaguest of quotes – certainly not a complete good faith estimate – and, whenever businesses blithely pretend to know how much their services will cost before looking closely at all possible difficulties – red flags should dance before borrowers’ eyes. By all means, if the debt management professional begins to talk about your eventual payments and what they would hope the interest rates would be during the initial consultation, feel free to gather your paperwork and walk away.At the same point, of course, while it is necessary to offer this information to your prospective debt management company during the application process, one shouldn’t just hand out your most personal financial data before making absolutely certain that the company is one to be trusted. Even beyond the question of honesty – as happens, many debt management companies will share such information with bill collectors and predatory credit card companies all too ready to shove near fraudulent balance transfer offers down the debtors’ metaphorical throats – there’s a separate issue of experience and competence.Your authors have known overworked debt management companies that simply threw out their past files into recycling bins outside the office! In this era of widespread identity theft, keeping such information private couldn’t be of more grave seriousness, and you simply have to make sure that your social security number and similar data will be properly disposed of. In fact, you should have the debt management professional you consult with give you assurances in writing about their organizational guidelines regarding the destruction and confidentiality policies regarding client documents before handing anything over. For obvious reasons, your debt management partners will need to trade this information with the lenders that they will need to deal with over the course of debt negotiation, but representatives of those credit card companies should be the ONLY ones to be given access to such incredibly sensitive data.Also, on the topic of documents, prior to giving the debt management company your paperwork – or, considering the FICO score’s reduced every time your credit report is checked, even your social security number – do try to ascertain some notion of their best guess, however vague, as to the costs expected. Once again, the more legitimate companies shall be far more reticent to provide any sort of estimate without detailed analysis of your accounts, but, if you give a close idea of the amounts of the balances as well as your FICO score from each of the three main bureaus, they should at least be willing to come to some theoretical notion of the potential expense. Much can be learned from the charge requested for the initial consultation with the debt management counselor.While it shouldn’t be seen as odd for some negligible fee to be attached to the first meeting – expect something around twenty five to seventy five dollars unless the loan balances under contention are truly gargantuan – anything beyond a hundred dollars should be seen as a warning sign. As we continue to remind, you should also make sure to have written documentation detailing precisely what you will receive for this fee, and you should ask whether or not there will be further charges for enrollment or admittance or seemingly superfluous fees. Any debt management company that has several charges for essentially the same task will not stop there, after all. If you fall for these charges, lord only knows what they might try next. Furthermore, while that initial payment may be necessary up front (if they didn’t charge anything, debt management companies would be besieged by skinflints pressing they for advice or information free of charge), additional fees asked by the company should be able to be built into the debt consolidation process so that you would never have to pay one lump sum all at once.Speaking of the payment terms, they (it should go without saying) depend almost completely upon both the total amount of the credit card balances and the specific debt management approach that you end up selecting. The approach really does matter. Debt settlement rarely allows borrowers to maintain payment schedules lasting longer than five years while home equity loans can continue racking up compound interest for decades and Consumer Credit Counseling, as with so many things, remains eternally malleable to the borrower’s demands. However, you should be able to figure out what the debt management company costs will be each month before agreeing to their program. Obviously, you have to expect that their will be some sort of monthly administrative charge – this is how the companies make their money – but it should not be any higher than ten dollar per month.Many of the less reputable debt management firms attempt to hide redundant charges within the monthly payments, and some of them add on an additional annual expense for exactly the same efforts! Not to repeat ourselves, but this is why a close perusal of the final good faith estimate is such an integral part of choosing the debt management companies. If it’s not within your capacity or if you haven’t the time (since so many borrowers who need to consider debt management are holding down two jobs), ask any of your friends or family who may be more experienced with financial matters or who have an accountant upon retainer if they could take a look to weed out such unnecessary fees. Sometimes a creditor will even insist upon proof of payment to the debt management firm in question before they undertake serious negotiations, but, as with everything, this should be verified beyond possible dispute.While on the subject of monthly payments, another element of debt management that many borrowers unused to dealing with this sort of financing tend to ignore revolves around the lenders themselves. Remember, you are entrusting all payments to be made – which, in essence, means entrusting your credit rating for years to come – to the debt management firm, and it’s of the greatest importance that they understand and acknowledge their responsibility. Particularly lax or incompetent debt management companies (or, even, those companies that themselves have liquidity problems) have been known to delay the payments to creditors that they have been charged to transfer out.After debt management, you will be sending the checks to the management company, but, in many instances, you will still be held liable by the credit card companies for the obligations that you originally signed on for. Make sure that you understand precisely your debt management partners’ plans for timely remuneration of the credit card companies and – we apologize for the repetition but this cannot be underlined sufficiently; too many households have been lost to oral agreements – get everything down on paper. For that matter, force the debt management company to send along a notice each month that records their payments to the various lenders alongside some tracking system available over the internet. As ever, should the debt management professional suddenly blanch or in any way act as if this is outside the bounds of his responsibility to his client, feel more than free to walk out the door. Indeed, feel that it is your duty to remind the company about industry standards.As to the payments themselves, we fall into another grey area. So much of debt management depends upon a knowledge of the individual situation that it becomes increasingly hard to remotely advise borrowers as to what sort of plan or program would be to their best advantage. However, regardless of the household’s debt situation, some aspects are not relative. While the amount of monthly payments suggested by the debt management specialist that you are working with may, indeed, jump up or down by thousands of dollars when put into comparison to your income and debt load, the actual ratios remain stagnant. No matter what, there needs to be costs of living built into the structure of your debt repayment, and, even with a strict budgetary policy that forgoes previous liberties, some expenses are bound to be constant.Your debt management professional must be able – and, more to the point, willing – to adapt the overall goals you must both be striving towards (to eliminate consumer debt as quickly as possibly so as to reduce the potential effects of compound interest) with the sad realities (day to day household costs plus some money set aside each month for savings). While you do not want to work with a debt management professional that blithely allows your debts to continue for longer than necessary to assure himself and his company of continued rewards, you also don’t want to be at the mercy of any debt specialist so obsessive about debt relief and so absent empathy about the actual plight of his clients that they suffer unnecessarily to save a few bucks over the course of the program.Put plain, you need a debt management firm that understands you and your family’s current living conditions as well as your eventual long term goals and aspirations – presuming a debt-free existence to be paramount among them. Much as you should look twice at any debt management plan that features suspiciously low monthly payments, do not immediately trust another company simply because the payments are markedly higher no matter how quickly they promise you would be able to repay all current obligations. There’s far more to debt management, at the end of the day, than simply eliminating what debts you have this very moment, and budgets set by debt management professionals that clearly have no idea and less interest as to your actual expenses just won’t be feasible over the long haul.There are so very many different debt management programs and debt counselors with which you may work when attempting to solve this problem that it would be foolish to fall for the first relatively decent offer and it would be something worse to allow yourself to be tempted by the budgetary elasticity of low payments OR the guild-ridden asceticism that too-high payments indulge. Ask around! Check out the competitors! As long as you have documented figures about your current credit accounts as well as your three FICO scores (or, better, if you have access, the actual credit reports), it is worth the time to talk to even a dozen debt management shops in order to make sure you’re getting the deal that’s best for your family’s finances. Debt management is a sparkling new industry, and you can’t simply hope to follow the path or your grandfather as you might for a home loan or mechanic. Research must be done and done seriously. This isn’t like cramming for a test or trying to brave your way through a DMV exam. Your selection of debt management specialists will impact your household’s next decade for better or, as too often happens, for worse.This article, by no means, should be seen as the only resource available for your household. There are an infinite number of debt management scenarios to be considered and an equal amount of potential landmines. Much as your local Chamber of Commerce and Better Business Bureau largely survive upon paid membership, they do – grudgingly, it should be remembered – keep a backlog of prior complaints from unhappy clients, and it should not be that difficult to request information about any company you have been considering. Also: see if the firm of choice maintains any professional affiliations. Many of the more legitimate Consumer Credit Counseling outfits have recently been accredited by the government following the 2005 changes to the United States Bankruptcy Code (all those who declare bankruptcy must now, on their own dime, take absolutely needless courses on debt management; yet another way in which the congressional alterations of Chapter 7 makes the bankruptcy alternative less palatable for ordinary consumers) and that’s one way to ensure at least some competence and experience from the organization.Debt settlement negotiators, on the other hand, must be certified by a national board, and, should you go through that (ever more popular, with good reason) route, make absolutely sure they can prove such certification. Nevertheless, as with so much involving debt management, the final decision rests with you. Nobody can hold your hand, least of all an on-line article, when deciding upon the men or women who shall shape your financial future. Study all the information that you can, take a hard look at your own finances, and, at the end, remember that the debt management specialist you end up with will be tied to you and your family’s finances for a long time to come. With that understood, choose your debt management solution accordingly.