FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — There are a number of credit counseling services available to help people dig out of credit card debt.
Credit counselors act as the middleman between those who owe money and the people to whom the money is owed. They can negotiate payments, interest rates, and sometimes, even the amount owed in order to help get debt under control.
That was not what happened to Barbara and Steven Stewart.
"I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel," Barbara Stewart said. "I constantly worried about the debt. I wondered how in the world I was going pay that off."
The Stewarts had more than 20 credit cards and were $25,000 in debt.
They keep their credit in good standing by paying the minimum payment each month. At that rate, they calculated it would take them more than 20 years to pay off the debt.
In May 2003, they contracted with Knight Credit Services in Fayetteville. They said owner Jamie Acosta promised he could help them pay less and get out of debt within 46 months -- less than four years.
The couple paid Acosta $750 a month, which was to go straight toward their debt.
"When I went there, I did feel relief that it was finally going to be taken care of, and I thought I was doing the right thing," Barbara Acosta said.
That feeling did not last long. Within a few months, creditors started calling -- sometimes 20 or 30 times a day.
"It was horrible. It was absolutely horrible," Barbara Stewart said. "We couldn't answer our phone. We were embarrassed when we had family over, because they were wondering why we didn't answer our own phone."
The Stewarts called Acosta. They said he had lots of excuses, but promised to take care of everything. He then reduced their payments to $700 a month. Credit reports show the bills were not paid on time.
Less than a year after the Stewarts started Acosta's program, they said they were almost $32,000 in debt -- $6,000 deeper in debt than when they signed up.
"I'm still not sure where my money went," Steven Stewart said.
That is when the couple called Five on Your Side.
In a phone call with Five On Your Side, Acosta blamed the Stewarts. He said to get out of debt, they needed to increase their monthly payment. He said payments were late because the Stewarts paid him by check. He claimed those checks sometimes took two weeks to clear.
The Stewarts said Acosta never said checks were a problem. They also said they offered to pay more, but say Acosta told them it was not necessary.
Now the couple wishes they had never signed up.
"I feel embarrassed that I was dumb enough to go with them," Barbara Stewart said.
The North Carolina Attorney General's Office is investigating Knight Credit Services. The attorney general has 26 similar complaints against the company.
Acosta says that is not a large number considering the number of customers he has.
The Stewarts filed bankruptcy and through that are on a payment plan to pay back their debt.