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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 10:10 GMT
On the UK's debt frontline
Emma, not her real name, is a secretary from County Durham and is now £53,000 in debt through spending on credit cards and personal loans.
But she calls herself one of the "lucky ones".
"I had one credit card, with a limit of £2,000. The limit was then raised to £4,000. Then £6,000, and it went from there.
"I ended up living off credit cards - and borrowing more and more to pay off my debts.
"I would just sign a little bit of paper and send it back. No one asked me about whether I had other debt."
Shame kept her from sorting out the problem, which was rapidly taking over her life, for seven months.
In June she had a nervous breakdown, partly brought on by the stress of her debt.
"I spent months thinking about it. I was just so ashamed of my situation.
"I couldn't face dealing with it and got further and further into debt."
By the time she got the courage to pick up the telephone, and call the Consumer Credit Counselling Service in Leeds last September, she was desperate, and had become suicidal.
According to a survey by consumer analyst, Mintel, average debt in the UK per man, woman and child is now £11,830.
In total, personal debt rose to £720bn in 2001.
When the love affair with easy credit turns sour, the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS), along with other debt advice charities, can prove invaluable.
The service employs 165 people around the country, and is expanding to cope with the fall-out of increasing consumer debt.
It is the start of peak season at CCCS's head office.
Millions of credit card statements - the first since Christmas - will land on people's doormats over the next few weeks, and the advisors at CCCS are preparing for the busiest time of year.
Emma calls the counsellors who work from this office, her "angels".
She read about the service in a woman's magazine and is now so thankful for the advice she received.
They have helped her face her debt problem, provided emotional support and helped her set up a repayment plan.
CCCS offers a range of practical advice over the telephone and face-to-face.
Advisers help prioritise debts, work out payment plans, and negotiate with creditors.
The service is free to consumers, but CCCS asks for a 10% cut of debt from any funds it recovers for the credit industry.
Last year, the charity recovered £41.2m, and handled 91,000 calls from the public and set up more than 11,000 debt management plans.
Cry for help
"We don't ever know what type of call will be coming through," says Joan Moore, who works for the charity.
People are often extremely upset when they ring the helpline - and sometimes, like Emma, suicidal.
However, advisers say panic is often quickly overtaken by feelings of relief.
Carol Robinson, another counsellor, says: "The first call is often the most difficult. It does take quite a bit of courage for them to ring us.
"When they do eventually call, sometimes we are the first person they have talked to, so there is a lot of emotion there, sometimes a lot of shame.
"But once we have talked to them for a minute, they know that we will not judge them and are here to help wherever possible."
Sue Elliott joined CCCS in June 2001 as a counsellor.
In September, she will finish paying back a £20,000 debt.
"It's my last year - thank goodness. It is just too easy to get credit. I would never get a loan again. It has put me off for life."
She says that having experienced debt first hand has helped her counsel others.
"The best thing to do then is to let them cry and tell them to take their time and say it is alright to cry and that they are not alone.
"It is just having someone to talk to, who they can confide in. A lot of them just keep quiet and keep getting deeper and deeper in to debt and don't talk about it which makes it worse."
On average, people who come to CCCS for help are £21,000 in debt and owe money to 10 different creditors.
But the charity says that some of those largest debts could be minimized by better financial education.
Many of these people have taken out consolidation loans, which compound their debt. Or they are spending money they don't have to pay for advice.
It is not ironic that Gordon Bell, chief executive, used to work for GE Capital - one of the biggest credit card companies in the world.
CCCS like many other debt advice agencies works closely with the credit industry.
On the surface it seems an uneasy relationship, but CCCS says that this close relationship with credit companies is essential to help negotiate debt payment plans with creditors.
"You need credit to survive in today's society," says Mr Bell.
"The difficulty we have is that people don't seek help early enough. Debt is still a bit of a social stigma."
Further information can be obtained from the CCCS helpline on 0800 1381111
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