While heads of governmental agencies have indicated public concern about the financial crisis, there have been few examples of substantive programs to assist citizens in financial trouble. The bailout helped to continue the lifestyles and bonuses of managers and executives of the recipient corporations, but did little or nothing to assist financially impacted individuals or communities.
The same companies that received bailout funds have readily adopted the slash and burn policy of massive layoffs of American wage earners. Though eager to accept governmental funds they have not eagerly sought alternatives to these harmful tactics such as job sharing, restructuring, fixed expenses cutting and corporate frugality. Make no mistake about it; the bailout had no provisions for reduction of salaries of multi-million dollar executives or reduction of Board of Director compensation.

Congress did not pass the Credit Card Accountability and Disclosure Act. And, most of the efforts discussed in the news will not substantively help those in foreclosure. It is unlikely that past credit card abuses will be addressed in a way to help those suffering now from reduced credit limits and over the limit fees. None of the proposed government programs provide assistance in paying bills for those who have lost their jobs.

The recently approved rules by the Federal Reserve Board in December 2008 will address the lack of transparency by credit card companies as well as arbitrary increases of interest rates and fees without notification. The rules also address subprime credit cards by limiting fees that reduce the amount of available credit. Though these rules protect against long standing credit card abuses, they will not be effective until 2010.

Another federal regulatory agency, the National Credit Union Administration, also approved rules that limit interest rate hikes on past purchases and eliminates unfair practices. The Office of Thrift Supervision, which regulates savings associations and thrifts, became the third federal agency to also pass rules related to credit card company abuses. Unfortunately the rules of these federal agencies will not take place until July of 2010. For those victims of unfair practices and others who may, because of a loss of a job, soon become a victim, governmental help is currently not available.

If there are only a scant few organizations offering Real Help, what are the processes to help traveling through these tough times?

There are non-profit organizations that are set up to assist those in financial crisis. However, traditional counseling does not change structural or fundamental problems. This is not a reason to avoid financial counseling. In fact, such counseling may help change your thinking about budgeting, debt, and financial issues. Changing one’s thinking is the first step to cementing the change process. The counseling will provide help in establishing the plan that will be your guide through tough times. A good counselor can also provide new insight and useful recommends.

In Los Angeles many of the large churches hold free legal clinics staffed by dedicated attorneys who can provide local names and resources. United Way, California Community Foundation, Public Counsel, East L.A. Community Corporation, Bet Tzedek, and Legal Aid are a few of the organizations that list resources on their Web site.

The harsh reality is that with the current nation wide massive financial problems these organizations are overwhelmed. The wait for an initial appointment is sometimes months. When you have the appointment scheduled, prepare so you are able to get the most out of the appointment.

For the first visit to be as fruitful as possible, the help seeker should have assembled copies of important financial information including: a list of all credit card bills with copies of the current statement for each bill; monthly mortgage statement or a copy of your lease; wage or income statements; two years of income tax statements; utility bills; all outstanding loans including those from family and friends; and monthly car payments.

Most of the organizations dispense advice. They do not give you money. The few that actually provide in-depth legal help can only take a few of the deserving cases that they review. Therefore, the earlier that you admit to a financial problem, the better the chances are that you can get help.
The simple truth is that the longer you “try to handle it myself” the more you reduce the options that are available to you. The faster you ask for help the more likely it is that there are options available to assist you in getting through your tough times.

Remember the advice from earlier articles and contact credit card companies, merchants, mortgage-servicing company and negotiate. Ask for consideration. Dispute erroneous charges.
Ask for modifications of terms and conditions.

Run away from individuals or companies claiming to provide “Debt Relief Solutions,” “Charge Offs,” and “Mortgage Help.” These individuals are very different than non-profit debt and credit counselor agencies, which can be helpful. Many are sharks that will steal your money. The best place to restructure your existing mortgage, for example, is with your current company.

Claims of help and not having to pay are usually ways to assist the company making the claim to get their teeth on the little money you have. These are among the many sharks that spot people wounded and bloodied by financial problems that suck the last blood from their victims. If you hear or see an ad or a friend recommends someone who can supposedly help, the first thing to do is to ask for references. Call the references. Check with the Better Business Bureau and State Attorney General’s Office to see if they have any complaints or legal actions against them.

With no exceptions, for any services get a written contract. Read it, understand it, and ask questions about anything that is not clear. Any verbal responses are useless. The contract should have a beginning and end date (time to do the work), the fees and any expenses for the services. A detailed explanation of what services will be provided is a part of any good contract. Any services that involve the obtaining of money should only be paid contingent on the funds or loan being obtained.

Before you sign the contract have someone you trust to review it. Ask if they think there is anything that you should question or is further information required. Take the contract with you to a free or low cost legal clinic.

TTT – Tough Times Tip: Most who claim to have the ability to offer assistance for those having financial hard times including loan modifications, quick loans, payday loans, cash outs, and debt restructuring are only interested in gaining your money through fees or access to assets (what you own). Be skeptical and get help so you understand what you are agreeing to BEFORE you sign on the dotted line.

– Dr. B. J. Hawkins, President and CEO of OFSTM The Business Doctors, is a business growth and turnaround specialist. She can be reached by e-mail at bdoctors@aol.com.