Top Consumer Scam: Debt Settlement Firms

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- What's the No. 1 consumer scam victimizing Americans these days?

Chalk up one vote for debt settlement schemes, according to the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

An association report says only one in 10 consumers who pay for debt settlement actually wind up debt free. That makes it the top "risky scheme" facing debt-challenged Americans, the group says.

"Already struggling with home foreclosures, harsh bank and credit card fees and other major financial challenges, America's most deeply indebted consumers are now falling victim to a major new threat -- so-called 'debt settlement' schemes that promise to make clients 'debt free' in a relatively short period of time," its research paper says.

The debt settlement industry reluctantly admits their services don't pay off for most consumers, the paper says.

"Unfortunately, most consumers who pursue debt settlement services find themselves facing not relief but even steeper financial losses," it says. "Even the industry acknowledges -- though not in its ever-present radio and online advertising -- that debt settlement schemes fail to work for about two-thirds of clients. Federal and state officials put the debt-settlement success rate even lower -- at about one in 10 cases -- meaning that the vast majority of unwary and uninformed consumers end up with more red ink, not the promised debt-free outcome."

According to NACBA, that translates into a lot of financially strapped Americans getting fleeced. The group pegs the number of Americans enrolled in debt settlement programs at 500,000, with $15 billion in total debt. The pipeline is full, too -- the association says that one in 10 U.S. households hold more than $10,000 in credit card debt.

How can consumers sidestep debt settlement scams? The association has a few tips:

Never default on a debt or loan. One tactic debt settlement services use is to advise debt-ridden consumers to default on loans. That's a bad idea. Once you default on on a debt, you'll incur "fines, penalties, higher interest rates and possible litigation and wage garnishment," the association says. That puts you in even deeper financial peril, with "deeper debt and credit scores severely harmed."

Handle it yourself. NACBA advises consumers facing a debt issue to engage in "self-help," especially for "single-debt" issues. "If you have just a single debt that you are having trouble paying (such as a single credit card debt) and you have cash on hand that can be used to settle the debt, you may be able to negotiate favorable settlement terms with the creditor yourself." Consumers may be able to negotiate a payoff of anywhere from 25% to 70% of the debt.

No "pennies on the dollar." Avoid debt settlement firms that guarantees debts can be paid off for pennies on the dollar. There are no such guarantees, and your best bet is to ask the creditor directly about any payoff options.

Avoid monthly fees. NACBA says most debt settlement companies will stick you with heavy fees and may even demand a percentage of any money they "save" you. Steer clear of those outfits. Instead, check out a nonprofit debt settlement firm that avoids those fees and charges. The U.S. government offers a list of government-approved credit counseling organizations, by state, here.

Above all, your best bet to keep from getting victimized by debt settlement scams is by using your own eyes and ears. If a deal seems rotten, it probably is, and can easily lead to more debt and lower credit.