I just read an interesting story in the Toronto star that shed some light on one of the major players in the credit counselling industry. If you haven’t read it and you are considering enlisting the advice of a credit counselling service you should read Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada operates without certified counsellors.
Now here is my first caveat, there are many very good, very qualified credit counselors across the country. For example, Money Mentors in Alberta. Over the years I have practiced I have found that the counselors employed by Money Mentors have consistently provided solid advice and I don’t hesitate to refer those people who are in a position where they can afford to pay their debts in full. However, in recent years we have seen a large increase in the number of organizations offering credit counselling services and unfortunately there seems to be a number of those who are not as qualified as one might assume.
For reference, I have never had any direct experience with Consolidated Credit Counselling Services of Canada (CCCS), as they don’t have much of a presence here in Alberta. But I was very surprised to read that CCCS, an organization that is often quoted by the national media when reporting issues related to consumer finance, apparently doesn’t employ a single certified counselor. This is no small organization; in 2011 they generated total revenues of 8.4 million dollars in 2011 (according to documents filed with Canada Revenue Agency). Even more interesting, they are reported to be a member of the Ontario Association of Credit Counselling Services (OACCS), an organization that requires members to employ certified counselors. I am not sure what I am missing, but as a consumer looking for qualified advice I would definitely be concerned.
The more I read on this topic, and there are some very interesting articles out there (see Doug Hoyes’s Credit Counsellors vs. Bankruptcy Trustees: What’s the Difference? and Laurie Campell’s Blog Post The fat is in the fire for debt settlement services.) the more I realize how careful one must be when looking for advice on how to manage your debts. Clearly there are a lot of things going on in the world of Consumer Finance and as a consumer it has never been more important to be vigilant. How can we be vigilant… do your homework.
If you are struggling to pay your debts you need to meet with a professional. My first recommendation is that you are safest to meet with a licensed Trustee in Bankruptcy. Now I know the moment you hear the word Bankruptcy it sounds scary, but bankruptcy is only one component of the work a Trustee is involved in. But what is important about a Trustee in Bankruptcy is not the word bankruptcy, but the fact that a Trustee is licensed by the Federal Government and in order to be licensed they must have completed detailed an involved training process and are investigated by RCMP before they are licensed. Once licensed they have a legal obligation to provide consumers with a full explanation of all the options available to deal with their financial woes, and they are held accountable to that end (see the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy’s Professional Conduct Decisions). All this is done to ensure that consumers have a highly trained professional they can be relied on to provide the informed advice to those in need. A
This isn’t to say that there aren’t good credit counselors out there, and that credit counselling doesn’t have value, but given the problems that exist and the lack of clarity of who is reputable and who isn’t, I would recommend you start with a Trustee (and for reference I am a local trustee who serves the Edmonton area and a big component of reputable credit counselling, should you need to contact a credit counselor in Alberta give me a call at 780-435-5110 and I would be happy to point you in the right direction).
However, I do think that regardless where you turn for advice you need to ensure you are meeting with a reputable person or organization and at a minimum you should ask the ask the following questions:
1. Are they Qualified
This is two-fold, you want to ensure that whoever you are dealing with is both educated and accredited. So ask the question. If they tell you they have a designation, ask which one. Remember, you are more likely to be able to trust the advice given by someone who has invested in their education and training.
2. Are they reputable?
This is something that is often more difficult to determine. So do a search in google, see if there is any bad press about the organization your looking at. Contact your local Better Business Bureau to see if there are any registered complaints. Or potentially call a local trustee, most trustee’s keep a list of those in the credit counselling industry who they would trust.
3. Are they local?
In Alberta this is a big one. If the company you are looking at doesn’t have an office in Alberta there is likely a reason for that. One of the biggest benefits of living in Alberta is that there is legislation that limits the way a credit counselling firm can operate and as a result we have a small portion of the problems that are being experienced in other parts of the country. In fact, many provinces are considering implementing similar legislation (see Ontario Liberals to crack down on debt settlement companies.
4. Are they upfront about their fees?
It is essential that you understand what services you will be provided and what you will be paid and as a consumer you deserve to be given a full explanation of any fees that will be charged. This includes how much will be charged in total, when it will be paid and when those fees will be incurred. If you can’t get a satisfactory explanation about the fees you are likely dealing with an organization with a questionable business model and I would recommend you go elsewhere.
If your struggling with debt, don’t be turned off by the recent headlines about unscrupulous counsellors. There are many qualified, well trained professionals out there, but as a consumer we simply have to make sure we exercise caution. So make sure you ask the right questions, do your homework and in doing so you will find one of the many people out there who are qualified, reputable and capable.