Credit Counseling: Relief Or More Grief?

Disneyland was the setting for the Los Angeles premiere of of Walt Disney's "Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End" on May 19, 2007. Proceeds from the premiere benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America and Make-A-Wish International.
With Americans now $700 billion deep in credit card debt, a new and virtually unregulated industry, promising to eliminate that debt, is booming.

And, as CBS News Correspondent Mika Brzezinski reports, in Part 1 of a CBS consumer alert special investigation, the people who promise to help dig you out of debt can just dig you in deeper.

In the commercials it sounds so simple: credit counseling companies promise to eliminate your debt and all you have to do is keep up, "one low monthly payment."

"I did my part," says Romanita Berrios. "I gave them the money every month."

Berrios, a registered nurse, had a perfect credit rating until she was overwhelmed by medical bills after open heart surgery. Then she signed up with Financial Freedom, whose representatives promised to negotiate a lower rate on her credit cards and pay them off.

Instead, she says, they didn't pay any of them.

"Not one," Berrios says.

Attorney Charles Juntika says what clients don't know is that credit counselors get a kickback from the credit card companies.

"The more they can get you to pay, the more they collect," says Juntika. "That's like a collection agency."

But in Berrio's case, they never paid her bills. First interest rates and late fees started piling up, and then she started getting threatening collection calls.

"Financial freedom told me, 'Don't worry about it, you get these calls. Just send them to me,'" she says.

Consumer advocate Travis Plunkett says the boom in consumer debt has created the perfect opportunity for rip off artists.

"You've got the good, the bad and the ugly in the credit counseling industry," he says. "This industry is like the Wild West. Nobody is paying attention (and) almost anything goes."

And certainly no one was paying attention to what happened to Berrios next. Financial Freedom's representatives told her she'd be better served by a company called Debtco and disappeared. Six months into her contract with Debtco, she got a call from a federal marshal. One of her creditors was suing her and her wages were about to be garnished.

"I was scared I was going to lose my pay check," she says. "I thought I was going to lose my apartment. I thought I was going to lose my car. I didn't know what else to do."

Still, Debtco President Nicolas de Segonzac insists that they were saving up to pay off her creditors in a lump sum and she just wasn't patient enough.

"If Ms. Berrios had stayed in the program, she would have been very successful," says Debtco President de Segonzac. "We have ways of talking to the creditors and having them back off from the position they take."

But they didn't, and finally, Berrios walked into the very place she'd gone into credit counseling to avoid in the first place.

"The one thing I didn't want was to go into bankruptcy and that's exactly what happened," she says.

"Berrios was an on-time payer before she went to the credit counselor," says Juntika. "They put Romanita into bankruptcy."

And what happened to the thousands she lost?

Tomorrow In Part 2: CBS goes undercover to follow the money.