I need help managing my debt

July 31, 2013 18:18 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

I was out of work for nine months and couldn't pay all of my bills.  My debts have really piled up and I need some help.  How can I find an honest credit counseling agency?  

Consumer Ed says:

A reputable credit counseling agency can be very helpful. Credit counselors can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free educational materials and workshops. They can also renegotiate the terms of your credit agreements and arrange to pay off your debts. You are right to take care when choosing a debt management company, as not all of them are legitimate. Some may charge excessive fees, misrepresent what they will be able to accomplish, or not pay your creditors in a timely manner, thus actually worsening your debt problems and your credit score. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling can help you locate a reputable credit counseling/debt management service in your area. You can contact them at 800-388-2227 or www.nfcc.org.  

Make sure you know your legal rights concerning debt management companies. Under Georgia's Debt Adjustment Act:


  • A debt adjuster may not charge you a fee of more than 7.5% of the amount you pay monthly for distribution to your creditors.
  • All funds received from a debtor, minus authorized fees, must be disbursed to creditors within 30 days.
  • A separate trust account must be maintained for your funds, along with certain insurance coverage, and audited annually.
  • Copies of these audits and insurance policies must be filed annually with the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection.


Please report any violations to the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection by visiting www.consumer.ga.gov, or calling 404-651-8600.

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Can a credit card issuer share my Social Security number?

June 7, 2013 00:12 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

I have a department store credit card issued through a retail bank. I recently received a privacy policy form in the mail.  Part of the policy states that the types of personal information they collect and share depend on the product or service I have with them, but the information collected and shared can include:

•    Social Security number and income

•    Account balances and payment history

•    Credit history and credit scores

They said you could phone and limit sharing – which I did immediately – but it may take up to 30 days from the date the notice was sent.  My question is this:  Do the department store/retail bank have the right to share my Social Security number with other people?  This seems like a huge security risk and invasion of my privacy.

Consumer Ed says: 

Although we have not disclosed the name of the particular department store or retail bank in this column, based on the information that you have provided to us it appears that the department store’s credit card is operated by the retail bank in question, so it is probably the bank’s privacy policy that you received in the mail.  The reason this matters is because the bank meets the definition of a “financial institution” under federal law.  As such, it is allowed to share your nonpublic personal information, e.g. your Social Security number, provided that it follows certain regulations required by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”).  Specifically, the bank can disclose nonpublic personal information about you to a nonaffiliated third party if it has done all of the following:

•    provided you initial notice;
•    sent you an opt-out notice;
•    given you a reasonable opportunity, before it disclosed the information to the nonaffiliated third party, to opt out of the disclosure; and
•    you do not opt out.

Additionally, any entity (whether it is a financial institution or not) that receives your personal information from the bank may be restricted in its reuse and re-disclosure of your personal information.  

Based on your question, it sounds like you’re also concerned about the security risks involved with the sharing of personal information.  You should know that the FTC has established a regulation requiring financial institutions to “develop, implement, and maintain a comprehensive information security program” in order to “insure the security and confidentiality of customer information.”  You can learn more by visiting the FTC’s webpage about the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act at www.ftc.gov/privacy/glbact/glboutline.htm.  If you have any additional concerns and need legal advice, you should consult a lawyer.

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Credit Card Surcharges

May 28, 2013 17:36 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

How much of a surcharge are merchants allowed to charge you for paying with a credit card?

ConsumerEd says:

Surcharges for credit card payments became legal in January of 2013 following a class-action settlement between merchants, Visa, MasterCard, and a number of major banks.  Now, merchants may charge from 2-4% (but not more) of the underlying credit card purchase if you make your purchase using either a Visa or MasterCard credit card.  This surcharge is meant to cover the cost that merchants pay to the credit card companies in order to have the ability to process payments made with those credit cards.

However, merchants who add this fee onto their customers’ bills must post a sign in their front window notifying them of this.  Additionally, the merchants must disclose the exact amount of the surcharge at the point of sale and on their receipts.  A caution:  For online purchases, merchants are only required to disclose this surcharge on the first page where the potential customer is prompted to enter in his/her credit card information.

These surcharges may only be imposed on Visa and MasterCard purchases; such fees may not (at least not yet) be assessed for an American Express or Discover Card purchase.  Finally, a merchant can never impose a surcharge for a purchase made on a debit card.

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