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While credit cards are an essential tool in today's world, sometimes people get in over their head and amass more debt than they can reasonably pay off. If you're being hounded by debt collectors and it seems as if you'll never be able to pay off your credit cards, using the services of a credit counselor might be the way to help you get a handle on credit card payments and eventually get out of debt.

A credit counselor or credit counseling organization is a service that works with you to help you get out of the red. They can provide advice about managing money and debts and teach you how to create a budget. Sometimes credit counseling organizations will offer workshops and provide educational material.

The FTC notes that a reputable credit counseling organization's counselors will be certified and trained in consumer credit, money and debt management. Counselors should look at your entire financial picture and help develop a personalized plan to tackle debt. A session with a counselor can last about an hour and may involve follow-up appointments.

Many credit-counseling organizations are nonprofit. However, even though a service may call itself nonprofit, its services many not necessarily be free. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that there's no guarantee that a counseling organization provides free, affordable or legitimate services. It also cautions consumers to look for high or hidden fees in exchange for help with debt relief.

The Consumer Benefits Alliance (CBA), a credit counseling company, also provides advice about finding a legitimate credit counselor. "You should be able to get decent, affordable credit counseling without paying any upfront costs," said John Willis, operations manager at Consumer Benefits Alliance, in a statement.

The CBA especially warns consumers to avoid companies that charge a large fee--sometimes over a thousand dollars--and promise to return it once a consumer has finished a debt-management program. "It absolutely amazes me how many companies out there are charging fees in excess of $1,000 to enter these programs. It's unethical and against the law," said Willis.

The Better Business Bureau also advises consumers to first get any agreements about services performed and the payment terms involved before signing up with a credit counselor. "Get the facts. Everything should be disclosed up front. The costs of service should be straightforward and reasonable," say Edward J. Johnson III, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau in Washington, D.C., in a statement.

The Better Business Bureau can help in a search for a credit counselor by sharing any complaints that consumers have filed against a particular agency. Although it's not a guarantee that a counseling service is legitimate if no one's filed a complaint about them, it does help weed out some of the more fraudulent companies. The United States Trustee Program also has a list of approved credit counseling agencies that help people out in situations of pre-bankruptcy.

The FTC also recommends that consumers thoroughly interview a counseling agency before agreeing to use their services, just as they would any contractor or other major service provider. You should look for agencies that offer a variety of options for debt reduction and ongoing money management, as opposed to only offering debt management plans. Find out whether or not any educational materials they provide will be free, and understand the agency's fee structure. Make sure the agency is licensed to operate in your state and has qualified counselors. Find out whether counselors are paid bonuses or incentives if you sign up for particular services. If they do, you should avoid them because they may not have your best interests at heart.

Above all, find out how they'll keep your private information confidential and understand the fees they'll be charging you. If you can't afford them, see if they offer financial assistance. Get your service agreement in writing and be sure to read it before signing.

While vetting a credit counseling agency may be a pretty heady task, it's wise to do it. A good agency can help take away some of the stress that comes along with losing control of your financial situation and help get you back on the road to wise credit use and money management.