A free hot line for financial queries

PERSONAL FINANCE

Your Money

June 03, 2008|By EILEEN AMBROSE

Sometimes you just need to ask somebody one question about your finances.

Should I consolidate my student loans?

Why did my credit card interest rate double to 28 percent?

What do I do about the collection agency coming after me for an old bill I already paid?

Marylanders now have a new resource to call and find the answers to these or any other money questions. Three nonprofits - Maryland CASH Campaign, Baltimore CASH Campaign and Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware - have created a financial counseling hot line. The service is free and open to all Marylanders, regardless of income.

Call the hot line at 877-254-1097. The hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday.

Robin McKinney, director of the Maryland CASH Campaign, says the idea of the hot line came from the tax preparation programs the state and local CASH Campaigns offer annually. Consumers often come in looking for help on financial issues beyond taxes, ranging from car loans to so-called zombie debt.

"We need to have a place people can call and get a questioned answered," McKinney says.

The groups also wanted to make sure the counseling came from an "independent, neutral nonprofit" that wouldn't pitch products to consumers who called, says Joanna Smith-Ramani, director of the Baltimore CASH Campaign.

They didn't want, for instance, a troubled consumer to be steered into a subprime loan that could put the person in worse financial shape, she says.

The hot line will be operated by 30 counselors from the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware in Catonsville.

Jim Godfrey, president of the credit counseling agency, says calls to the hot line so far have dealt with troubles with credit cards and help developing a budget, similar to the kinds of issues the agency usually deals with.

However, if you call with a question counselors can't answer, they will refer you to someone who can, he says.

The CASH (Creating Assets, Savings and Hope) Campaigns focus on helping low-income households, but the hot line is open to even those with high incomes.

"There is no shame in calling a hot line like this," McKinney says. "This is about getting the help you need, when you need it."

The advantage of a phone service, too, is that it gives Marylanders across the state easy access, rather than having to go to an office for help, McKinney says.

The hot line was in the works long before the General Assembly passed legislation this year that allowed for-profit companies to provide debt management services to Marylanders. Debt management involves a counseling agency working out a repayment plan for consumers with their credit card issuers. For years, only nonprofits could provide this service.

The new law took effect this month, but it may be months before for-profits start serving Marylanders because the companies must first be licensed by the state.

Smith-Ramani says consumer advocates have worried that for-profits will sell consumers unnecessary products, one reason why they wanted to work with a nonprofit on the hot line.

Godfrey's group offers debt management, but waives fees for this service for those who can't afford them.

"We don't have any for-profit motive," Godfrey says.

The credit counseling agency will be able to track the type of questions it gets on the hot line. The CASH Campaigns will use the information to develop programs targeting those areas where consumers need the most help, Smith-Ramani says.

Godfrey's nonprofit isn't being paid for the extra work. And what if his group is handling so many calls that it has to hire more counselors?

"I hope so," Godfrey says. "If we do, that means we have been successful."

To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com.

ONLINE

Find Eileen Ambrose's column archive at baltimoresun.com/ambrose

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