Choosing a debt counsellor critical

Appointing someone to act on your behalf should not be taken lightly.
Appointing someone to act on your behalf should not be taken lightly.

It's not uncommon for debt counsellors to terminate their service with clients, deregister from the industry, or die, leaving their clients feeling high and dry.

But, if the consumer has a court order declaring himself or herself over-indebted and restructuring repayments to creditors, they need not feel vulnerable, says Pretoria-based debt counsellor Renee Marais.

So, what should you do if you suddenly find yourself without a debt counsellor, and what are your rights?

Marais says your two most important rights are your right to engage a debt counsellor of your choice, and your right to pay your creditors directly rather than via a payment distribution agent (PDA).

When a debt counsellor dies, doesn't renew their registration or is deregistered by the National Credit Regulator (NCR), the regulator "transfers" the debt counsellor's consumers to a new debt counsellor to ensure there is continuity of service.

If this should happen to you, it's important that you are happy to appoint the debt counsellor to whom you have been transferred, as the decision is yours, Marais says.

The NCR is the regulator of credit providers, debt counsellors and credit bureaus. It does not have authority over you as a consumer of credit.

Your original debt counsellor would have had a power of attorney to act on your behalf, and that needs to be revoked before you can give a power of attorney to your new debt counsellor, Marais says.

It should go without saying that the decision to give someone the power to act on your behalf should not be taken lightly. Not only do you need to be able to trust the person to act in your best interests, you also need to have a service level agreement with them so that you know what you can expect from them.

Jacob Ramonti, a Soweto-based debt counsellor, says ideally you should engage a debt counsellor who has at least five years' experience, and who has been mentored by a senior debt counsellor.

Your relationship with your debt counsellor may span a decade or more, depending on how long it's going to take you to be debt-free, which is why it's important that you find someone that you can trust and relate to.

Very often, what binds consumers to their debt counsellors is the PDA, says Michelle Barnardt, a debt counsellor in Mpumalanga. The role of a PDA is to receive a single instalment from you when you are in debt counselling and then disburse this to your various creditors. The PDA also takes a fee and pays the debt counsellor's fee.

The National Credit Act states that consumers in debt counselling have the right to pay their creditors directly - and need not use a PDA.

"It is the consumer's responsibility to pay their debts and by doing so, they are able to keep track of all payments made to their creditors," says Marais.

When a PDA distributes on your behalf, you are beholden to the debt counsellor, she says. "Using a PDA may be convenient, but there is the risk that you lose track of where your money is going, and lose control of your hard-earned cash.

"You need to know when your money is paid to each of your creditors and how much was paid, so that when credit providers or their collection agents call you, claiming that you've not paid your monthly instalment, you are able to respond to these calls armed with accurate information."

Marais says one of the most common complaints from consumers in debt counselling is that their creditors - or debt collectors hired by creditors - are phoning them, claiming that payment hasn't been received.

"If you are the person who made the payment, you are perfectly positioned to address these callers," says Marais.

As a consumer of credit, you are contractually responsible to pay your creditors all that you owe to them. You cannot delegate that responsibility to a debt counsellor.

The NCR failed to comment when asked for advice on what consumers should do when their debt counsellor is no longer able to provide the required services.

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