"Hey, I've never met you.
So don't get clever.
That's my number.
Robocall me never."
When consumers are struggling with their finances, is there anything worse than getting solicitations from debt settlement outfits deceptively promising to reduce their unsecured debt by 50% or more? Actually, there is something worse. According to a lawsuit filed by the FTC, it’s when those bogus claims are conveyed via illegal (and annoying) robocalls to numbers on the Do Not Call list — and when the companies in question make unauthorized debits from people’s bank accounts.
Those are the allegations in the FTC's complaint against Jeremy R. Nelson and four companies he controlled: Nelson Gamble & Associates LLC, Jackson Hunter Morris & Knight LLC, BlackRock Professional Corporation, and Mekhia Capital LLC. The FTC has charged that in many instances, the defendant’s recorded sales pitches claimed to be “public service announcements.” People were told that because President Obama wants to help consumers get out of debt, people can settle for 50% or less of what they owe. To make matters worse, the defendants allegedly “spoofed” their identity by transmitting phony caller ID information — meaning that consumers couldn’t figure out who was calling.
In addition to the telemarketing calls, the defendants also pitched their debt relief services online. According to one of the defendants’ many sites, “Nelson Gamble works with the utmost diligence to obtain the best possible outcome for our clients, with over $90 million of debt settled in the past 12 months — and over $800 million since our inception…” The defendants claimed to use “proven tactical methods to settle debt by 50% to 80% of your total outstanding balances” and told people that “Typically, you can be free from debt in three years or less.” In addition, they said lawyers would provide the services.
But according to the FTC, the defendants settled few, if any, debts for consumers. And that part about being lawyers? Not true, says the FTC.
The FTC alleges that the violations didn’t end there. When consumers stayed on the line after the recorded sales pitch or called one of the numbers on the defendants’ websites, they were transferred to operators who asked for their Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, and security information — like a maiden name or sibling’s middle name — all under the pretext that the information was needed to pull the person’s credit report or confirm their debt-to-income ratio.
What does the FTC say was really going on? According to the complaint, Defendant Nelson instructed the telemarketers to send him the security and bank account information at the end of each day. For people who signed up for the services, the defendants debited an up-front fee of $200 or more from their bank accounts within a few days of the phone call and before the defendants had settled any of their debts. In numerous other instances, the FTC says the defendants debited money from the bank accounts of people who hadn’t enrolled in their services.
What about when people tried to cancel and discontinue the monthly debits? The FTC says that in many cases, the defendants didn’t honor their requests and continued to debit money from their accounts.
The complaint alleges that the defendants’ course of conduct violated numerous consumer protection laws, including section 5 of the FTC Act and multiple provisions of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, including the Do Not Call Registry, the ban on robocalls, sections making it illegal to transmit deceptive caller ID information, and sections added in 2010 making it illegal to accept fees upfront before settling consumers’ debts. The complaint also alleges that the defendants violated the Electronic Fund Transfer Act and Regulation E, which bans debits to consumers’ bank accounts on a recurring basis without their written authorization and without providing consumers with a copy of the authorization. A federal judge in California has issued a temporary restraining order against the defendants.
In a related mark-your-calendar note, on October 18, 2012, the FTC is hosting a public summit in Washington, D.C., to examine issues surrounding the robocall problem. Watch for the agenda soon.