Debt Relief: How Will It Affect Your Credit?

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Many people ask, What’s the best way to get out of debt? Then they may often think, But I have good credit and I really don’t want to hurt it. There are many ways to lighten your debt load, and not all of them will have a major negative effect on your credit. But it’s also important to consider your situation and needs when weighing your options.

To help you decide which debt relief plan is best for you, we’ve provided a brief overview of each option and how they may affect your credit in the short term and long term.

A Few Things to Remember

Before we dive into the different debt relief options, understand that the debt you carry makes up just under one-third of your credit score. So when you pay off debt, especially credit cards that are close to their credit limits, you should see improvement in that part of your score.

However, understand that our analysis of credit relief plans is based on generalities. It doesn’t necessarily represent exactly what will happen in your case. How far your score drops—and how quickly it bounces back—depends on a lot of different factors. If your payment history always shows on-time payments, for example, and you suddenly file for bankruptcy, your score will probably drop more than someone who was already severely delinquent.

But it’s impossible to predict how a particular approach will impact your individual credit if you’re not familiar with your credit history—so get a free credit report from Credit.com to review that history.

With this information in mind, here are the main approaches to debt relief you may consider, along with a review of the impact they could have on your credit reports and scores.

Debt Relief Option Immediate Credit Impact Long-term Credit Impact
Debt Snowballs and Avalanches None Reliably positive
Debt Consolidation Small impact (positive or negative) Minimal
Credit Counseling None None
Debt Management Plan (DMP) Moderate impact (positive or negative) Minimal
Debt Negotiation or Settlement Severe damage Slow recovery
Bankruptcy Severe damage Slow recovery

Debt Snowballs and Avalanches

If you prefer to pay off your debt on your own, you might consider a snowball or avalanche payment method. The debt snowball is when you pay off your debts one at a time, starting with the lowest balance. The debt avalanche works similarly, except you start with your highest balance and work your way down.

It doesn’t make much of a difference whether you choose the avalanche method or the snowball method, but many find the snowball method is easier to stick to. Neither approach will hurt your credit, as long as you make the minimum payments on all of your cards on time.

Immediate Credit Impact: None

Long-Term Credit Impact: Reliably Positive

Debt Consolidation

Combining multiple card debts into a fixed-rate consolidation loan can be helpful, but it isn’t a strategy for getting out of debt in and of itself. After all, you still have to pay back the loan. A consolidation loan is more like a tool to get out of debt faster.

Because consolidation loans often offer lower interest rates than the credit cards themselves, you can pay off your debt faster. And if you have a lower monthly payment than before, you can better avoid late payments. This will help your credit score recover more quickly if you’ve fallen behind in the past.

But consolidating credit cards with a loan may have a positive or negative effect on your scores. It’s one of those “it depends” situations.

On the plus side, if you pay off a card balance that’s close to the credit limit, you may improve your “utilization ratio”—the ratio that compares your credit limits with the balances you currently have—provided you leave the card open after paying it off. But simply moving balances from one card to another is unlikely to do a whole lot for your scores.

On the other hand, you’ll have a new loan on your credit reports, and most credit scoring models will count that as a risk factor, which could mean a dip or drop in your scores.

The exception? If you take out a loan from your retirement account to consolidate credit card debt, you’re more likely to see your credit improve. Retirement account loans aren’t reported to credit reporting agencies, so your credit reports will show less debt with no new loan. However, retirement loans carry their own risks, so proceed with caution.

Immediate Credit Impact: None

Long-Term Credit Impact: Minimal

Credit Counseling

A credit counselor is a professional who can advise you on how to handle and successfully pay off your debt. A simple call to a credit counseling agency for a consultation won’t impact your credit in the slightest. But if the credit counselor or agency enrolls you in any kind of consolidation, repayment, or management plan, that could affect your credit.

Make sure you fully understand the potential impact of any debt relief program before you sign up. Don’t be afraid to ask the credit counselor how a new plan could alter your credit.

Immediate Credit Impact: None

Long-Term Credit Impact: None

Debt Management Plan (DMP)

With a Debt Management Plan (DMP), you make one monthly payment to a counseling agency, which then disburses payments to your creditors. This kind of plan can affect your credit in several ways.

Some creditors may report that a credit counseling agency is repaying the account. Don’t worry if they do. FICO, the data analytics corporation that calculates consumer credit risk, ignore such reports. An individual lender may care, but FICO doesn’t. Of course, any late payments or high balances on accounts will continue to impact your credit score.

With the help of the counseling agency, you can stay current on your payments, and that can improve your credit score. “Most major creditors will re-age your accounts after you’ve made three on-time payments in the required amount,” says Thomas J. Fox, community outreach director for Cambridge Credit Counseling.

Re-aging an account means bringing it back to “current” status, so your credit report will no longer list you as behind. Since recent late payments can really hurt your scores, getting up to date on your payments now is a smart move, especially as the sting of past late payments fades over time.

However, you’ll have to close your credit cards when you agree to a DMP, and that will likely lower your scores. How much it will hurt depends on everything else in your credit reports, including whether you have other credit accounts, such as car loans or mortgages, that you pay on time.

The impact may take time, says Barry Paperno, community director for Credit.com. He states it’s because “balances and limits won’t necessarily change right away, and utilization will be the same as before closing accounts.

He goes on to explain, “Closing an account in and of itself isn’t considered negative by the score. Over time, however, having closed the cards can hurt the score, as closed cards with zero balances are excluded from utilization and ultimately fall off the credit report much sooner than open cards that have been paid off.”

“Plan on getting a secured card when you complete the DMP so that as long as you keep a low utilization percentage on that one card, you can achieve a good score—with any [late payments] fading well into the past,” Paperno continues. “Also, your old closed cards will continue to contribute positively to your overall length of credit history for as long as they remain on your credit report (typically 7 or 10 years).”

Immediate Credit Impact: Moderate impact (positive or negative)

Long-Term Credit Impact: Minimal

Debt Negotiation or Settlement

Some creditors may allow you to settle your debt, which permits you to pay less than the full balance you owe. But creditors typically won’t settle debts with consumers who make their payments on time, so it’s a better option for those that already have several late payments on their credit report.

On top of that, “most creditors will report the settlement as something like ‘paid less than full balance’ if you settle the debt before it has been charged off,” warns Michael Bovee, community manager for DebtConsolidationCare.com. Creditors generally charge off debts when borrowers fall 180 days behind. And charged off debts often get turned over to collection agencies.

Bovee further explains, “When you settle a charged-off debt, getting it reported [with a] zero balance due will not in and of itself help your credit because the damage has already been done.” But it could help you ward off further damage from, say, a potential lawsuit.

In other words, settling an account before it gets charged off can prevent it from going to collections and adding another negative item to your credit reports—or causing other harm.

Brad Stroh, co-CEO of Freedom Debt Relief, adds, “Debt settlement hurts people’s credit scores but helps their credit profiles. [It’s] worth considering for anyone struggling to pay a lot of credit card debt, despite its negative effects on credit scores. It is far easier to rebuild one’s credit than to get out of debt, and people carrying a lot of debt likely have credit problems already.”

Immediate Credit Impact: Severe damage

Long-Term Credit Impact: Slow recovery

Bankruptcy

It’s well known that filing for bankruptcy will hurt your credit score—bankruptcies can stay on your report for up to 10 years from the filing date. However, with updates in the credit scoring algorithms, a bankruptcy isn’t the credit death knell it used to be.

Credit scoring algorithms typically segment consumers into subgroups called “scorecards.” If you experience a significant negative credit event, such as a bankruptcy, you’ll likely be compared with other consumers who’ve experienced something similar for credit scoring purposes.

That may bring a little bit of comfort, but it also means you might have a good shot at improving your credit scores if you make a real effort to rebuild your credit after your bankruptcy is discharged.

As far as your credit is concerned, you can recover from Chapter 13 bankruptcies more easily than other types of bankruptcies. In Chapter 13 bankruptcies, you typically pay back some or all of your debts over a period of three to five years, and they come off your credit reports seven years after the filing date.

So if it takes you four years to complete your Chapter 13 plan, you have to wait only three more years before the bankruptcy disappears from your reports.

However, you’ll probably end up paying more in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy than a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, where you wipe out all or most of your debts by selling some of your assets. Make sure you discuss both options with a qualified consumer bankruptcy attorney.

Immediate Credit Impact: Severe damage

Long-Term Credit Impact: Slow recovery

Getting Back on Track

Whichever method you choose, keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to pay off your debt so you can save and invest for future goals. A hit to your credit may be worth it if it means you can finally get your balances to zero. Monitor your credit, consider getting a secured card if necessary, and keep your financial situation in perspective.

“People just worry about their credit too much,” says Fox. “If your couch is on fire, would you not throw water on the fire because you don’t want to damage the upholstery?”

As you work to pay off your debts, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your credit score to see how you’re improving. Get your credit score for free from Credit.com.

Image: Alija 

The post Debt Relief: How Will It Affect Your Credit? appeared first on Credit.com.

The Truth About ‘Obama Student Loan Forgiveness’

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The average 2016 college graduate carries $37,000 worth of student loan debt today according to an analysis of student loan debt by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex.com. Kantrowitz tells MagnifyMoney he expects that number to rise for 2017 graduates.

It’s no wonder that those drowning in debt can get desperate. And scammers have come up with a clever way to dupe these borrowers into spending money on services that promise to erase their debt. One of the most popular student loan scams today involves companies that charge borrowers to sign up for the so-called “Obama Student Loan Forgiveness” program.

The only problem is that there is no such loan forgiveness program.

The truth about “Obama Student Loan Forgiveness”

So-called student “debt relief” companies use “Obama Student Loan Forgiveness” as a blanket term for the various flexible federal student loan repayment programs implemented over the last decade by the Bush and Obama administrations.

What they don’t tell unwitting consumers is that these programs, which include income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness, among others, are free to borrowers and do not require paying for any special services in order to enroll.

Promising relief to indebted college graduates, these companies lead people to believe that enrolling in these programs requires special assistance — which they may offer for a sizable upfront fee and/or recurring monthly payments. Rather than getting the help they need, borrowers are duped into paying for something they could easily accomplish for free with a simple phone call to their student loan servicer.

While there are multiple ways you can get scammed by debt relief companies claiming to offer you “Obama Student Loan Forgiveness,” there are some red flags that can help you spot a scam.

6 ways to spot a student debt relief scam

It’s important to note that it’s not illegal for a company to charge a borrower to enroll them in a program that’s free to them. These companies are arguably taking some of the work out of getting enrolled, even if that “work” could easily be accomplished with a phone call to your student loan servicer.

Nonetheless, some debt relief firms take things a bit too far, and it’s important to be aware of scams out there. After all, student loan forgiveness scams are really only one part of a broad range of debt relief scams. Debt relief scams share many of the same qualities and employ similar tactics to mislead consumers into paying for their services.

Here are some red flags to watch out for:

  1. They ask for fees upfront. By law, debt relief services are not allowed to ask for payment until they have performed services for their customer. A legitimate debt relief service may ask for a fee upfront, but they will place that payment in an escrow account, and they will not officially receive the payment until they complete the work.
  2. They charge fees for free government services. This one is a bit tricky. So long as a company makes it clear that it is possible to gain access to a government debt relief program for free, it’s not illegal for them to charge consumers for their help in enrolling in those programs. However, the worst actors out there will keep that information to themselves, leading consumers to believe they need to pay a professional for access.
  3. They claim to be affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education. The Department of Education, which manages the federal student loan system, does not partner with any debt relief services. Any company claiming to be associated with the Department of Education is a scam.
  4. They “guarantee” that your debt will be forgiven. Services will try to entice customers by promising total loan forgiveness or a reduction in their student loan payments. But monthly payments for borrowers enrolled in federal student loan repayment programs are established by law and cannot be negotiated. Also, the legitimate loan forgiveness programs out there usually require making payments for several years, and there is no company that can promise loan forgiveness unless you meet those payment requirements first.
  5. They advertise “pre-approval” for debt relief programs. There is no “pre-approval” for federal income-driven repayment or loan forgiveness programs. They are free for borrowers, and so long as your loans are in good standing, it’s a matter of the types of loans you have when you took them out that qualifies you for the different programs. To see if you qualify for a given program, contact your loan servicer directly.
  6. They offer to make your student loan payments for you. You should be the only person submitting payments to your loan servicer. The Department of Education has contracted these loan servicers to manage federal student loans, and loan payments should be made directly through their websites. Never send your payment to a debt relief firm, even if they promise to pay your loans for you. The exception here is if you’re working with a debt relief firm to settle a debt with a lump-sum payment. In that case, they are legally required to hold your cash in an FDIC-insured account until they officially settle the debt. And if their client decides they no longer want their services, they have to return the funds to them in full.

Do your due diligence before working with any debt relief service, by keeping an eye out for these red flags, as well as checking sites like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, or the Better Business Bureau for complaints against the company.

What to do if you’ve fallen for a student debt relief scam

If you’ve been scammed by a debt relief company, there are certain steps you need to take to prevent further financial damage. However, know that it is possible you may never get your money back.

Submit a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission. Reporting scams, can not only help others from losing their money, but if an investigation by the CFPB or FTC results in suit and judgment, then the debt relief company may be required to issue refunds, cease business, and ensure borrowers do not miss out on important repayment benefits.

Track your credit reports with all three credit bureaus to ensure your personal information is not used fraudulently. You can get one free credit report each year at annualcreditreport.com or use these free services to monitor your report for suspicious activity. If you fear a debt relief scammer has your Social Security number and other financial information, you might want to consider a credit freeze. That will stop anyone from being able to open a new line of credit without you knowing.

Contact your loan servicing companies and have any power of attorney authorizations removed. Some companies will ask borrowers to give them power of attorney so they can negotiate directly with their loan servicers. You don’t want to leave any company with this privilege because they will be able to make decisions about your loans without you knowing.

Contact your bank or credit cards to stop payment to the debt relief company and see if they can work with you to try and get your money back. It is common for debt relief services to charge monthly recurring fees for their services.

Change your Federal Student Aid password. Every federal student loan borrower has a unique login for the https://studentloans.gov site, where you can track all of your federal loans. If you gave a company your FSA information, consider that information compromised and change your FSA password immediately.

9 Legitimate Student Loan Forgiveness Programs

While there is no such program called “Obama Student Loan Forgiveness,” there are several legitimate student loan repayment programs that offer student loan forgiveness.

These programs have a wide range of requirements and payment terms, some as short as five years, others as long as 25 years, and can be available based on the types of federal student loans you have as well as your chosen career.

In addition to loan forgiveness programs, there are programs that offer loan repayment assistance or loan discharge. How much can be discharged and the amount of repayment assistance varies greatly depending on the program.

9 examples of legitimate loan forgiveness programs, loan repayment assistance programs, and loan discharge programs

What to do if you can’t afford your student loan payments

If you are struggling to afford your student loan payments, there are some actions you can take to ensure your loans remain in good standing and you avoid a default that could negatively impact your credit score.

Enroll in an income-driven repayment plan

If you are unable to afford your current payment, you can apply to change repayment plans. For example, if you are on a Standard Repayment Plan for your federal student loans, you could request to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan. If you are already on an IDR plan and your income has changed significantly, you can request to have your payment amount recalculated.

Ask for a deferment or forbearance

If you are going through a temporary financial hardship, you can ask your loan servicer to apply a deferment or forbearance, which would not require you to make payments during the deferment or forbearance. While both a deferment and forbearance offer you relief from making payments, with a forbearance you will be required to eventually pay back the interest that accrues during that time. Also, it’s important to note that while you are in deferment or forbearance, you aren’t making payments, which means you might be missing out on forgiveness programs like PSLF if you are working in public service or for a nonprofit.

Consider refinancing or consolidating your loans

Refinancing involves taking out a new loan from a private lender and using that loan to pay off your old loan. The pros of refinancing include a reduced interest rate and the ease of having just one payment. If you refinance a federal student loan, you will lose all of the benefits that federal student loans offer.

Alternatively, you could consolidate your federal loans. A Direct Consolidation Loan combines all your loans using the average weighted interest rate into one loan. So instead of dealing with multiple loan servicers and multiple loan payments each month, you only have one student loan payment to make each month. You can apply for a Direct Consolidation Loan at no cost through the government’s Federal Student Aid website.

Work with your loan servicer

If you have private loans, your lender may not offer as many repayment options as federal loans. Reach out and work with your lender anyway. They may offer a financial hardship program that would lower your payments. Your loan servicer would much rather work with you to ensure they get paid.

Consider bankruptcy if you can pass the “hardship test”

While it is highly unlikely you will be able to discharge your student loans in bankruptcy, it isn’t impossible. You must either show that your loans would impose an undue financial hardship that will not go away or that the loan was not a qualified student loan in that it did not fit the definition or was in an amount that exceeds the school’s cost of attendance. An example of where this argument has been successful would be a private bar loan, a loan taken out to cover the expenses of taking the bar exam.

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Debt Relief Options for Corinthian Students and Graduates

mortar board cash

The vast majority of students who take out federal loans to fund their education are required to eventually repay these loans in full. But what if the institution you are attending closes, or is found to have violated the law?

If you are a student or graduate of a Corinthian school, you could be eligible for debt relief from the federal government. It was determined in 2015 that Corinthian Colleges, Inc., the company that operated Everest College, Heald College, and WyoTech schools, defrauded students by providing false information about the job rates of graduates.

Due to this finding, and to the subsequent closing of Corinthian college campuses, students who took out federal loans to attend a Corinthian school have the opportunity to apply for debt relief.

What is debt relief?

Debt relief is forgiveness of debt, in part or in full. If you attended Corinthian Colleges, you could be eligible to have up to 100% of your federal student debt from your Corinthian program discharged or forgiven.

How do I know if I am eligible for debt relief?

There are two types of debt relief that you may be eligible for as a Corinthian student or graduate, depending on your situation:

  1. If you attended one of Corinthian’s campuses that closed on April 27, 2015 (a list of these campuses can be found here), or if you withdrew from one of these campuses on or after June 24, 2014, you may be eligible for closed school debt relief for your Federal Direct Loans, Federal Family Education Loan Program loans, or Federal Perkins Loans. Note that if you later transferred your credits to a different school, this might impact your eligibility for debt relief.
  1. If you attended a Corinthian campus that did not close on April 27th, 2015, but you believe you were defrauded by the school, you may be eligible for debt relief for your Federal Direct Loans under a borrower defense to repayment.

How do I apply for debt relief?

First, determine whether you are more likely to be eligible for closed school debt relief or for debt relief under a borrower defense to repayment.

If you are applying for closed school debt relief, you must do so through your loan servicer. You may send them this application or contact them directly to see if they have their own application. There is no deadline to apply.

Instructions for applying for debt relief under a borrower defense to repayment are still under development; however, in the meantime, you can apply by submitting Borrower Defense to Repayment materials (a list of these materials is available on this page). Note that if you attended a Heald College location, you may be eligible for an expedited application process.

In either case, it may take time for your application for debt relief to be processed. You can request that your student loan payments be put into forbearance while your application is being considered (for up to 12 months), though you should note that interest will continue to accrue during this period.

What about my private loans?

The two types of debt relief listed above apply only to federal loans. If you took out private loans to attend a Corinthian school, contact your private lender to ask whether debt relief is an option.

Where can I find more resources?

The Department of Education has comprehensive resources available on its website for individuals who have attended a Corinthian school and are interested in applying for debt relief. You should read through these pages thoroughly before applying:

The government has also set up a borrower defense hotline at (855) 279-6207 for students who have questions about borrower defense to repayment.

If you need to find out who your loan servicer is, log into your borrower account at the Federal Student Aid website or call (800) 4-FED-AID.

Additionally, you can contact Next Steps EDU, an organization created to offer support and resources to students of Corinthian Colleges, through its website.

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