Credit-service organizations can provide real results, help consumers.

 by Lee “Doc” Compton

 Obtaining financing can be a huge barrier to homeownership. Today, many Texans face considerable challenges being funded for a home purchase because of the combination of a lower-than-ideal credit score and much tighter credit guidelines.

Many have chosen to turn to the credit-repair industry for help. But, in an industry that’s got its share of bad apples, how can consumers choose a credit-repair company wisely? Here are a few things to consider:

 First things first

There’s no way to get legitimate obligations off a credit report or to wipe a report clean. Bad debts stay on a report for seven years from the date of first delinquency with the original creditor, and bankruptcies stay on for 10 years.

A credit-repair service gathers information and does the legwork on legitimate disputes, such as inaccurate, unverifiable, or otherwise erroneous information-which, according to some estimates, is a problem on almost 80% of individuals’ credit reports. Credit bureaus then have 30-45 days to investigate disputes.

 Registration, please

With limited exceptions, credit-service organizations (CSOs) must register annually with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which maintains a simple search tool of active and inactive registrations at its Web site, www.sos.state.tx.us. If a company isn’t on that list, it means that there’s no state-provided protection.

At the site, you’ll also find FAQ’s about CSOs. If your question is not addressed in the FAQ section, you must call the Statutory Documents Division of the secretary of state’s office at 512-475-0775.

 Being up front

Up-front credit-repair fees may not be charged, according to the federal Credit Repair Organizations Act. However, Texas law allows for such fees if the company has a $10,000 surety bond, a financial instrument that guarantees performance. If a credit-service organization charges up-front fees, the bond is a requirement for registration with the state of Texas. Again, check the secretary of state’s web site.

Been here long?

Longevity can be a positive indicator of reliability and customer satisfaction. With many people suffering from the financial losses associated with a slumping national economy, there has been a huge influx of new credit-repair companies hoping to capitalize on the market-some with unscrupulous practices.

 In good company

Is the company recognized by or affiliated with an industry organization? For example, the Texas Credit Repair Association is a 501c(6) nonprofit trade organization whose goal is to self-regulate the credit repair industry in Texas.

 Too good to be true?

The Federal Trade Commission and several state attorneys general are aggressively pursuing credit repair companies that make unsubstantiated claims of deletion percentages or score increases. Be sure to examine any guarantees of services or projected scores, as there are very often a significant number of fine-print items that can make any real warranty or guarantee almost impossible to claim.

 Can you put that in writing?

Contracts for credit-repair services must be in writing, dated, and signed by the consumer. The contract must contain the payment terms, a description of services, an estimated period for performance, the address of the organization’s principal place of business, and the name and address of the registered agent. The written contract must also notify consumers of their right to cancel within three days after signing the contract.

 Beware exorbitant, hidden fees

If a person could afford a thousand dollars up front for credit repair, he probably wouldn’t need a credit-repair service.

 Self-service is OK

Consumers can certainly fix their own credit, but there’s a process, and credit repair can be tricky and time-consuming. It’s a question of how much time someone is willing to spend going through the credit-repair process and understanding the associated laws. But then, they could also buy or sell a home without the guidance and expertise of a Texas REALTOR® too … right?

 Lee “Doc” Compton owns Omega Credit Repair and Counseling Service and is a board member of the Texas Credit Repair Association, an agency that seeks to self-regulate the credit-repair industry in the state. Contact him at doc@omgacreditrepair.com or visit OmegaCreditRepair.com

 Check for accuracy-it’s your right

The Fair Credit Reporting act guarantees access to one free credit report per year from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies-Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

There’s only one place to get a free, no-strings-attached credit report: AnnualCreditReport.com. You may order all three reports at once or space them out over the year.

Don’t be confused. The act does not guarantee a free credit score-just the report.

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