Consumer complaints about debt-relief providers have doubled since 2009. But by the time you complain, it's usually too late. Fear not. Here are five red flags that could mean you're being fleeced by your debt-relief provider - before the money goes missing from your pocket.

TUTORIAL: Credit and Debt Management

At first glance, seeing the cavalry charging to your aid after sinking into a serious debt disaster might well be a relief to consumers. Debt-relief companies are one of the least-regulated industries in the U.S., and there is no shortage of charlatans, fraudsters and scam artists waiting to separate you from your money. While the U.S. Federal Trade Commission does track down some fraudulent debt-relief companies – especially bogus foreclosure relief firms – individual states handle the bulk of the law enforcement responsibilities linked to debt-relief scams.

In Massachusetts, for example, The Office of Consumer Affairs reported over 3,000 consumer contacts over potential debt-relief fraudsters, and the state reported six out of 13 foreclosure-relief firms demanded up-front payments despite a law against such payments in the Bay State.

State Not Happy
The state isn't happy about the issue. "By charging up-front fees with no guarantee of success, these companies can further harm a consumer's situation instead of improve it," said Barbara Anthony, Massachusetts' undersecretary of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

The FTC does have some practical advice on keeping bogus debt-relief outfits at arm's length, noting that a consumer's best defense is heightened awareness and a commitment to diligence against such scam artists. (For more, read What's Your Debt Really Costing You?)

Here's an insider's look at some of the best debt-relief tips from the Federal Trade Commission:

Watch out for Lofty "Promises"
The FTC advises consumers to run, not walk, away from debt-relief firms that promise consumer debts can be "paid off for pennies on the dollar." Despite such promises, there is no certainty that any creditor will accept any partial payment – and anyone who guarantees they will is steering you down the wrong road.

Watch for "Multiple" Payments
This one is a favorite of debt repair fraudsters, the FTC says. Any firm that bills you twice or more - for a monthly service fee and for a percentage of any money you saved via the debt repair firm's efforts – is ripping you off. According to the FTC, debt-relief services should be itemized, and delivered in one bill. No separate fee should be added for a percentage of any money you may save from reduced debt payments. Your best bet? Read the contract before you sign on the dotted line.

Vet Your Debt-Repair Firm
By and large, the best way to find a reputable debt-relief provider is through a rigorous vetting process. For example, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling can steer you to a debt-relief firm that's already been given the council's stamp of approval. Find an approved debt-counseling agency that can steer you well clear of firms that try to reach you via email, direct mail or via telephone. These "mass advertising" campaigns are a favorite tactic of fraud artists. A good tip: check any agency against the NFCC's list. If they're on it, fine. If not, keep looking. (To learn more read How To Find A Credit Counselor.)

Stay Away From Firms Requesting an "Upfront" Payment
Like Massachusetts, all states have laws against debt relief companies demanding an upfront payment for services provided. If a firm asks you for such a payment, know that it's illegal, and walk away. You can do your fellow consumers a favor by reporting the company to your state's attorney general's office.

Watch for the "Bait and Switch"
Fraudulent debt-repair agencies will try to lure you in with not only guarantees of success, but with some eye-opening, low-service rates. Don't be fooled. If a debt-repair firm advertises bargain basement rates (like $100 or under), chances are it's a sucker's bet. The ruse is to lure you in, get you signed up, then start throwing exorbitant fees and charges at you, or try to get you to buy more pricey services.

The Bottom Line
Defending yourself against debt-relief scams is like anything else in life. The more effort you put into it, the better off you'll be. If that effort is lagging, your huge debt load may not be your only big financial problem. (If you want to avoid these issues, you should get in a habit and Check Your Credit Report.)

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