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They're either short-term (often six months to a year), or permanent (until the card balance is paid). "They don't advertise the programs, they see them as proprietary," says Travis Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America.

While the issuer itself might really want to help its customers, that attitude may or may not have made it down the personnel ladder, says Sherry.

The phone agent may not have a lot of decision-making power. What a hardship will do to your card If you call asking about hardship programs, watch what you say.

Some cards have hardship programs that reinstate the card (possibly with a different credit limit), when you complete the program.

A smart question to ask: "What happens to my credit card if I successfully complete the program?

It won't be obvious, but look for language along the lines of, "If you anticipate problems paying your balance, call this number." The number could ring the hardship department or, more likely, a customer service department that will screen you.

And if you get that customer service agent who tells you "we don't have a hardship program," that's a signal to hang up and call back later.then we may restrict their ability to use their accounts. Don't go a step further and admit you're having trouble paying your bills."Just inquiring about our hardship programs will not trigger an action," says Marina Norville, director of public affairs for American Express.Issuers call their hardship departments by a slew of different names.If you have a general number, your goal is to get to an agent who has the power to offer a hardship program.Just inquiring about our hardship programs will not trigger an action.

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