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Choosing a credit counselor

Maybe you've reached the point that you need a credit counselor to help with your money problems.

How do you find a reputable one?

While the Internal Revenue Service has cleared out a lot of bad players that didn't act like the nonprofit they were supposed to be, you still must choose a counselor with care, says Deanne Loonin, staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

"You can't count on any particular organization or label being a guarantee of quality," Loonin says.

Even so, she recommends you start your search with National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which sets standards for its member credit counseling agencies.

Find the names of counseling agencies near you at the NFCC's Web site at nfcc.org or by calling 800-388-2227.

Don't sign up until you ask questions about the services offered, qualifications and training of counselors and the fees.

Basic budgeting should cost little or no money, Loonin says. Reputable groups will waive fees if you can't afford them, she says. (Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware doesn't charge for budgeting or housing counseling.)

Are you seeking a debt management plan, where the counseling agency works with credit card issuers on a repayment plan for you? Maryland licenses agencies offering debt management and limits their fees. Check if a group is licensed at dllr.state.md.us/finance/debtmgmtlic.htm or call 410-230-6155.

Debt management tackles credit card problems, Loonin adds. If your problem is, say, medical bills, a debt management firm won't help, she says.

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