updated 11/6/2009 7:40:34 AM ET 2009-11-06T12:40:34

Reduce your debt by 60 percent! Stop collection calls! Be debt free in 12 months!

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The siren song of debt settlement firms is getting harder to ignore these days, especially if your finances are out of control or creditors are knocking at the door.

Tempting as their ads may be, however, debt settlement firms can leave you in an even worse mess. Many are outright scams.

"If a company's making big promises, it should raise red flags," said Alison Southwick of the Better Business Bureau. "Getting out of debt is not easy. It takes time."

Still, it's no surprise that people are vulnerable to promises of relief. It's probably why complaints against debt settlement firms rose by almost 19 percent in 2008 over the previous year, according to the BBB.

Before you pick up the phone, here's what you need to know.

How it works
The premise behind debt settlement firms is that they'll negotiate with lenders, usually credit card companies, to whittle down your balance. You pay the negotiated amount in a lump sum. Some firms promise to lower your debt by as much as 70 percent.

The incentive for lenders is that they salvage at least part of what they're owed.

Prices vary, but a firm might charge up to 20 percent of however much you owe. So the fee for a $10,000 loan might be $2,000. Fees are usually demanded upfront before a settlement is delivered.

Apart from the fact that a settlement may never be secured, the offer is riddled with traps. But more on that later.

You should know that the BBB automatically lists all debt settlement firms under its new "inherent problem" category, meaning it has concerns about the entire industry.

Companies can apply to be removed from the category by demonstrating they deliver on their advertising claims. No firms have been removed yet, although some are in the application process.

Better alternatives
The bottom line is that there's no need to hire anyone. You can negotiate a settlement directly with your lender.

"They have a complete picture of your finances. They will know if you're a candidate," said Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation of Credit Counseling, a nonprofit group based in Silver Spring, Md.

Before you even reach that point, however, be sure to exhaust all other options. A negotiated settlement comes with serious consequences and should be a last resort.

If you feel overwhelmed, ask for a free consultation at a nonprofit credit counseling agency. You may be able to develop a budget that lets you meet your debt payments if you work with a counselor.

You can search for a local agency on the Web sites of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org) or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (www.aiccca.org).

If a tightened budget doesn't do the job, a debt management plan may be in order. This is when you and your lender agree to more manageable repayment terms, usually over a longer period.

The credit counseling agency will likely charge a monthly fee of about $20 to work out a debt management plan, but it can be waived if it's unaffordable. The plan will be noted on your credit report, but it won't hurt your credit score.

You could also try negotiating a loan modification directly with your lender. Banks have gotten more flexible about adjusting terms in the past year or so. A modification can include a lower interest rate, the elimination of fees or a reduction of the monthly payment.

If you decide a debt settlement is your only option, call your creditor directly. Some credit card companies refuse to work with settlement firms, Cunningham said. So if you hire one, you might be throwing your money away.

The terms of the settlement will vary depending on the size of your debt, your financial circumstances and your credit card company. Your lender might ask about your income, assets and other debts to determine the size of your settlement.

A lump-sum payment is usually required, but you may be able to pay the amount over the course of a couple of months.

Repercussions
Hiring a debt settlement firm won't stop the collection calls. Even as a firm tries to negotiate, collection notices can still arrive, interest and financing charges can rack up, and your lender might even decide to sue you.

Aside from the fees you pay, the total amount of your debt is likely to grow too if a settlement isn't reached.

And it usually takes about three years to complete a debt settlement program, said David Leuthold, executive director of The Association of Settlement Companies, an industry group of about 200 debt settlement companies. That's because clients typically don't have enough money to pay the settlement amount demanded by the creditor right away. So the debt settlement firm will run interference while the client saves up that money.

The strategy might not make sense to a lot of people. But Leuthold said people nevertheless use debt settlement firms because they're daunted by the prospect of dealing with creditors on their own.

It's not all roses even if you do get a settlement. It will be marked on your credit report for seven years and can hammer your credit score.

Coming regulations
The Federal Trade Commission is reviewing regulations for the debt settlement industry. One of the proposed rules, for instance, would ban companies from taking fees before services are rendered — a common practice right now.

"That's before you know whether anything is going to be successful," said Susan Grant, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "In some cases, it's quite possible that no results are achieved."

Additionally, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo last spring launched a nationwide probe into the industry. As part of the investigation, an Arizona-based debt settlement firm was ordered last month to pay nearly $200,000 in penalties for defrauding customers in New York state.

Cuomo said Nationwide Asset Services Inc. failed to deliver on promises to reduce debts by 25 to 40 percent. The attorney general said less than 1 percent of its 2,000 New York customers saved that much.

At the very least, the case should be a warning to anyone considering a debt settlement firm.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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