Like the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun, the advertisements spew endlessly out of the TV, the radio and the Web, and they say something like this:

Increase your credit score! Lower your debt 61 percent without a loan! Repair your credit in 90 days! Save up to 73 percent with credit consolidation! Credit repair — Only $29!

Credit doctors are sprouting all over the country, promising — for a fee — to knock down the frightening amounts that borrowers owe to credit-card companies. Their hard-sell ads are the latest sign that more and more debtors are growing desperate, that the four most nagging addictions in modern American life are nicotine, caffeine, alcohol — and credit cards.

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The typical U.S. family carries seven credit cards, and their numbers add up fast. Consumer credit-card debt has more than tripled in the last two decades, from $238 billion in 1985 to $800 billion in 2005. Many debtors lament that they just cannot dig out.

Enter the self-described consolidators, who are created by the lenders to deal with die-hard deadbeats. They pull together all the debtors' assets and make up a schedule of repayment. The debtors then pay one pretty big check every month to the consolidator instead of many relatively small checks to the individual creditors. For this, the debtors may pay a fee of 10 percent of their total debt.

Dave Ramsey, author of "The Total Money Makeover," says these companies "aren't really consolidating debt, they're just paying your bills for you. In those cases, 88 percent of people fall back in debt again. Real debt consolidation is if you borrowed money in one loan to pay off all your little loans."

The lure of a true consolidation loan is that a bank or finance company will take over many debts and you, in turn, will make payments to that one institution. The catch is that the interest rate on such a loan is likely to be steep. So you could be replacing a heap of moderate debts with one big one that costs more to carry.

Keeping score

Still other companies claim that they almost effortlessly can arrange to increase your credit score. But about the only way they can do this is to petition the scorekeeping credit agencies to wipe out or reduce any false or inflated charges in your record. You could just about as easily do this yourself.

Warns the Federal Trade Commission: "[Some companies] promise, for a fee, to clean up your credit report so you can get a car loan, a home mortgage, insurance or even a job. The truth is, they can't deliver. After you pay them hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees, these companies do nothing to improve your credit report; most simply vanish with your money."

Adds Scott Kays, president of Kays Financial Advisory Corp. in Atlanta: "Common sense says that if they're paying for TV ads, they gotta be charging higher fees."

If you sign up for a credit-repair offer, the FTC says to look out for these signs of fraud:

Companies that want you to pay for their services before they provide them Companies that don't tell you what you can do for yourself for free, for example, contacting a credit bureau with a complaint Companies that tell you not to communicate directly with a credit-reporting bureau

Bear in mind also that just because a company professes it is a "nonprofit," that's no guarantee that its services are free, affordable or even legitimate. In fact, some credit-counseling organizations not only charge high fees but also hide their fees by pressuring consumers to make "voluntary contributions" that only cause more debt.

Still, there are a few well-established credit-counseling organizations that can be helpful. The best ones belong to associations such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which was lauded in a U.S. Senate Committee report on consumer credit in 2005 for its commitment to "ethical credit counseling at low cost."

You can find trained NFCC credit counselors — who can give you professional advice and help you make up a budget — by phoning 800-388-2227 or visiting www.nfcc.org. Read more on finding a reputable credit counselor.

And don't pay too much attention to those hard-charging advertisements.

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