You’ve heard the truisms. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never play cards with a guy named Doc. We’ve got another one for you: Think twice before doing business with a company called Legitimate Debt Settlement.
According to the FTC, Ohio-based United Debt Associates and company president Ryan Golembiewski ran 17 different websites claiming that people could quickly and easily get out of financial trouble by turning to one of several companies — including LegitimateDebtSettlement.com. The pitch was persuasive: “Reduce your debt 40%-60%” and “On average, our skilled negotiators are able to help consumers eliminate at least 50% of their unsecured debt balances.”
The ads tried to assuage any initial skepticism: “All of our associated debt settlement companies have been approved and accredited by the watchdog in the debt settlement industry and makes sure that they are properly conducting business according to industry regulations.” Some promos used official-sounding terms to suggest they were from public, non-commercial programs: “The US government decided to introduce a stimulus package to boost the financial institutions and prevent them from breaking down. Part of this stimulus money is being utilized by the credit card companies to offer debt settlements to the users.”
But what was really going on? If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably guessed that according to the FTC, consumers struggling to make ends meet weren’t getting the advertised results. The complaint — which alleges violations of Section 5 and the Telemarketing Sales Rule — says that United Debt Associates was a lead generator paid by debt settlement companies to refer people who responded to the deceptive ads. According to the FTC, the defendants pocketed about $25 for every lead and didn’t have proof to back up their claims. Instead, they just parroted what debt settlement companies said or copied information from other debt relief sites.
The settlement imposes a judgment of more than $390,000 and bans the defendants from engaging in debt relief services. What about lending a hand behind the scenes? The order prohibits that, too. It also bars misrepresentations about financial products and any other goods or services. Some good news for people who responded to the pitches: the order requires the defendants to destroy customer information.
What can marketers take from the case? Even if your line is lead generation, long-standing truth-in-advertising principles apply.