Credit can be confusing, and sometimes overwhelming. But you don’t have to struggle with debt, credit report issues or other financial problems alone. There are reputable sources that can help you get back on track, and many offer low-cost or free credit help.
1. Credit Counselors
Financial counseling agencies often do much more than just help consumers develop plans to get out of debt. Services may include a budget and creditor review, housing counseling for those struggling to pay their mortgages or those hoping to buy a home, a one-on-one review of your credit report and more. These services may be free or low-cost, but counseling agencies will always try to accommodate individuals with low incomes or those who can’t afford to pay.
“What one member agency offers for free another might offer at low cost, based on funding, location and other factors,” says Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which has 77 member agencies in 600 locations nationwide. And, he adds that a number of agencies also act as community service organizations which means they may be able to refer consumers in need to agencies that can provide help with housing, food, legal aid or other urgent needs. Find a counselor at NFCC.org (800-388-2227) or FCAA.org (866-694-7253).
Similarly, all branches of the military offer different types of free financial counseling and education programs. For example, Airmen can contact the Airmen & Family Readiness Center on their base for help. Military One Source also provides counseling at no cost to active duty service members as well as Guard and Reserve (regardless of activation status) and their families. Visit MilitaryOneSource.mil (800-342-9647).
Union members may be eligible for a free budget and credit counseling session through Union Plus Consumer Credit Counseling. Another benefit: a debt management plan with no set-up fee, and reimbursement of all first year fees upon successful completion of the first 12 months of the program. Visit UnionPlus.org/CreditCounseling (877-833-1745).
2. Consumer Websites
There’s no shortage of information available to consumers online, but not all of it is accurate–and some is designed to sell you a questionable product or service. (Such as: “We’ll remove anything negative from your credit reports!”) Keep a sharp eye and read critically. Here are some quality resources:
- The Credit.com blog: For answers to your credit questions, visit a site like the Credit.com blog where experts (including this author) answer many reader questions for free.
- CFPB: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also publishes answers to common questions in its Ask CFPB section.
- CareConnect USA: This service offers hotlines that connect individuals with professionals for debt collection and tax help, child support enforcement and more. Available online at CareConnectUSA.org or the Trusted Helplines app.
- Consumer Recovery Network: Trying to figure out how to negotiate with debt collectors? Michael Bovee, a Credit.com contributor who is also a debt negotiation expert, often answers individuals’ questions on the Credit.com blog as well as on his site, for free.
3. Bankruptcy Attorneys
If you can’t see a way out of your debt, are being sued by a creditor or collector and can’t afford to resolve the debt, or if you have an unpaid judgment you can’t pay back, you may want to consider talking with a consumer bankruptcy attorney.
Some will offer a free initial evaluation/consultation while others may charge a fee for this service. “I give an hour the first time around, others 1/2 hour, and some don’t meet with the potential client at all, they’re screened by a paralegal who legally can’t give legal advice,” says Connecticut bankruptcy attorney Gene Melchionne, also a Credit.com contributor, who works with consumers in the metropolitan areas where the income levels are relatively low in comparison to the rest of the state. “I couldn’t charge anyone for a first visit because they can’t pay,” he says.
Even if there is a fee to talk with a consumer bankruptcy attorney, it probably won’t be expensive (they know many of their clients are broke) and it may make a lot of sense do so before you make costly and irreversible mistakes like using retirement funds to keep a creditor at bay or ignoring a summons for a debt collection lawsuit.
One way to find a consumer bankruptcy attorney is to use the attorney locator feature at the website of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA.org).
4. Credit Reporting Agencies
By law, credit reporting agencies must explain information in your credit reports that you don’t understand. In addition, you can contact the bureaus to place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your report or to dispute a mistake on your credit reports.
You can start the process by getting a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Then, if you discover problems you can use the contact info provided with your report to contact the credit reporting agency directly. You can get your free credit reports once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. (Note, however, you will not get a free credit score through that service. If you want a truly free credit score, updated every 14 days, you can get one through Credit.com.)
5. Fraud Assistance
If you’re a victim of identity theft, you may feel vulnerable and alone. Of course you’ll want to take the proper precautions (notify your credit card issuer, for example, or place a fraud alert or freeze on your credit files.) But what if that’s not enough and you need more help? There are several free resources that may prove invaluable.
- IdentityTheft.gov is a site created by the Federal Trade Commission to help victims of identity theft take proactive steps to resolve it.
- Identity Theft Resource Center: A nonprofit with trained, expert advisers that provides one-on-one assistance for all types of identity theft.
- Internet Crime Complaint Center: If you have been the victim of a crime that originated online, such as a fraudulent online loan offer or an email phishing scam, for example, you may want to report it to the IC3, which is a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C).
- Fraud.org offers consumer tips to help avoid fraud, and if you are targeted, allows you to file an online complaint about telemarketing or internet fraud. It’s run by a nonprofit.
6. Government Agencies
At the CFPB website, you’ll find lots of helpful consumer information, but more importantly, you can file a complaint or tell your story. You can also search the CFPB complaint database to find out if other consumers are experiencing problems similar to yours.
The Federal Trade Commission’s website also publishes extensive consumer help information, and allows you to file a complaint. Especially helpful: Do Not Call list registration and tools for stopping robocalls. Unwanted telemarketing scams can cost you money, and sometimes even result in new debt you have to repay.
More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:
- The Credit.com Credit Reports Learning Center
- What’s a Good Credit Score?
- How to Get Your Free Annual Credit Report