Give Thanks for These Consumer Tools
Free Credit Reports, Free Scores
Tool: One of the best buys for consumers, free credit reports every year.
What it does: Allows you to see yourself exactly as lenders see you.
How to use: Get free reports through AnnualCreditReport.com, the site run by the three credit bureaus, rather than one of the commercial vendors. You're entitled to one of each of your three reports free every year.
Get the most out of it by: Use it to get a regular glimpse at your credit, says Evan Hendricks, author of "Credit Scores & Credit Reports" and the editor and founder of "Privacy Times." Because you have three reports (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), get a different one free every four months, he says.
What you probably don't know: While you still have to pay for your credit score, there are even times you can get that for free. For instance, when you apply for a home mortgage or refi, your lender has to show you your credit score.
"And it's the real one," says Hendricks. "It's the one the creditors get."
There are other ways to get a free credit score. For more information, read "How to get a free credit score."
Why consumers are thankful: It's especially useful these days for consumers because "a lot of people are refinancing," he says.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Tool: The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is scheduled to be up and running in July 2011.
What it does: Its mission is twofold -- to regulate financial institutions and oversee consumer financial products, and to serve as a hub for consumer problems with financial products and institutions.
How to use: It's almost too soon to tell. But it's designed to be a one-stop shop for information, consumer protection and complaints.
Because the bureau is responsible to consumers, "you can expect to see a degree of prevention and putting an end to certain financial practices," says Ruth Susswein, a deputy director with nonprofit group Consumer Action.
Why consumers are thankful: This is a big step forward for consumers, she says. For the first time, consumers will have a department "that is required to respond to consumer complaints," says Susswein.
And it's going to make a huge difference in terms of "stamping out bad practices and telling us the truth about products -- including disclosures we can actually read," says Gail Hillebrand, financial services campaign manager for Consumers Union.
Fee Limits for Debt Settlement Companies
Tool: The Federal Trade Commission's moratorium on upfront fees for debt settlement companies.
What it does: In response to waves of complaints from consumers and consumer activists, the FTC determined that debt settlement companies would not be allowed to collect fees from customers until after they'd actually settled a client's debt.
The fee also must be proportional to the settlement. So if the company only reaches a settlement on 50 percent of your bills, they can only charge you half of the fee, Hillebrand says.
Why consumers are thankful: "It's not perfect, but it's a real step forward," says Hillebrand.
Under the FTC's new debt settlement rule, "debt settlement companies can't take the money until they settle the debt," she says.
Bankrate.com is the Web's leading aggregator of information on financial products including mortgages, credit cards, new and used automobile loans, money market accounts, certificates of deposit, checking and ATM fees, home equity loans and online banking fees. Visit Bankrate.com to get the tools and information that can help you make the best financial decisions.