Naked in a Cold World

February 10, 2008 2:28 p.m.

Subprime mortgages are in the spotlight, but credit card debt has not subsided. Last quarter credit card grew at a rapid 9.3%. For many families, tricks and traps pricing will mean a debt treadmill that will keep these families making payments forever. As struggling families look for a way to get off the debt treadmill without declaring bankruptcy, they run into a new industry: Debt settlement companies.

These businesses promise to negotiate with creditors for some debt forgiveness, but the companies too often take a customer’s money and give little in return. Once again, hard-pressed families are thrown into a market that has figured out how to grab the last dollars they have. The industry is growing rapidly, but there are no regulations, no industry standards, and no one to turn to for help if the customer gets cheated. Already struggling and looking for help, these families are naked in a cold world of people who see them as one more profit opportunity.

Jane Birnbaum from the New York Times wrote about this new industry. Read her story and notice how there is no one — not a government official or industry representative — who thinks this is a problem that might require even the tiniest bit of intervention.

Adam Levitin from Georgetown talks about the growing number of families in trouble, and Ronald Mann of Columbia describes the industry practices designed to put customers in a “sweat box” to extract money from them.

Would it be possible to help families through debt negotiation? Cindi Geerdes from the University of Illinois law school clinic says that such actions could help, if done right, but that’s the trick — it isn’t possible to tell in advance whether a family will encounter a good counselor or someone who will strip away their last dollars and leave them even deeper in debt.

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