Defendants Misled Consumers About Debt Management Program, Violated Provisions of the National Do Not Call Registry
The Federal Trade Commission announced today that Florida attorney Randall L. Leshin, his debt management services company, Express Consolidation, Inc., and telemarketer Consumer Credit Consolidation, Inc. have agreed to settle charges that they used abusive telemarketing and deception to sell debt management services to consumers nationwide.
Two court orders entered in the FTC’s lawsuit bar, among other things, false representations to sell debt management services and future violations of the National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry. The defendants also must collectively pay more than $2 million. The court order governing Express Consolidation also requires that some current customers be transferred to another debt management services provider and that all current customers be given the opportunity to shift their debt management payments to another provider.
According to the Commission’s complaint, the defendants violated Section 5 of the FTC Act and that the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) in selling debt management services to consumers nationwide under the name of Express Consolidation. Although the defendants advertised Express Consolidation as a nonprofit company, the FTC alleged that its nonprofit status was a sham, and the contracts and fees secured under its name actually benefitted Leshin. The complaint alleged that the defendants made many other false representations about the costs and benefits of debt management services, including claims that the only cost for the defendants’ services was a monthly administrative fee, that fees were adjusted to comply with state law requirements, that enrollment would bring consumers specified savings, and that the services would improve consumers’ credit ratings. The complaint also alleged that the defendants failed to disclose the total cost of the program and falsely characterized fees as deposits or payments that would be refunded.
In addition, the Commission alleged that the defendants violated the TSR by calling consumers who had placed their telephone numbers on the DNC Registry, by calling consumers who had told the defendants they did not want to be called, by failing to pay for access to the Registry, and by abandoning calls made to consumers using voice broadcasting services. Under the FTC’s regulations, voice broadcasting calls from telemarketers must be connected to a live representative within two seconds of being answered by a person, and they cannot be disconnected or connected solely to a recording.
The Court Orders
The first order settles the Commission’s charges against Express Consolidation, Inc.; Randall L. Leshin (president of Express Consolidation); Randall L. Leshin P.A.; and Charles Ferdon (vice president of Express Consolidation). They sold and provided debt management services under the names Express Consolidation and Debt Management Counseling Center. The second court order settles the FTC’s charges against telemarketer Consumer Credit Consolidation, Inc. (CCC) and its president, Maureen Gaviola, who were charged with using deceptive marketing to sell contracts for Leshin and Express Consolidation, Inc.
Both orders bar the defendants from repeating any of the abuses alleged in the complaint. Specifically, the orders prohibit violating the FTC Act and the TSR by making false and misleading statements in marketing debt consolidation services to consumers, including misrepresentations about the nonprofit status of an organization, fees, refund policies, program benefits, savings, and compliance with applicable state laws. The orders also require the defendants to clearly and conspicuously disclose material restrictions, total costs, and refund policies before requesting payment from consumers for goods or services sold through telemarketing.
Next, the orders require the defendants to comply with the regulations establishing the DNC Registry, including the requirement that sellers pay for access to the Registry. They also require the defendants to comply with restrictions on the use of recorded telemarketing messages and to ensure that telemarketers working on the defendants’ behalf are monitored and comply with the orders. Both orders contain monitoring and record keeping requirements.
Protections for Debt Management Customers
The first order also requires Express Consolidation, Inc.; Randall L. Leshin; Randall L. Leshin, P.A.; and Charles Ferdon to stop charging their current debt management customers fees that exceed state fee caps. The order bars them from enrolling new customers in states where they are not qualified to do business, and from advertising that Express Consolidation is a nonprofit or tax-exempt entity.
Customers who currently are receiving debt management services from these defendants will be notified of the misconduct alleged in the FTC’s lawsuit and given the opportunity to cancel their contracts or transfer to another debt management provider. In states where Express Consolidation does not meet the state’s qualifications for providing debt management services, the defendants must transfer current customers who do not cancel to an alternative, qualified provider. In other states, defendants’ current customers will receive a notice allowing them to choose between agreeing to receive services from Express Consolidation, cancelling their contracts immediately, or continuing their debt management plan with another provider.
The settlements include a monetary judgment against Leshin, Randall L. Leshin, P.A., and Express Consolidation for $40 million and against Ferdon for $380,000, based on the total money they received through the scheme. Based on their inability to pay, the judgment requires that the four defendants governed by the first order collectively pay about $2 million and suspends the remainder of the judgment if these payments are made.
The settlement with CCC and Gaviola requires them to pay $50,000 and prohibits them from receiving any additional payments for their past marketing of the Express Consolidation program. The second order contains an $850,000 judgment against them that will be suspended based on their inability to pay. Under both orders, the full amount of the suspended judgments may become due if they have misrepresented their financial information to the FTC.
The Commission votes authorizing the filing of both stipulated final orders were 4-0. They were entered by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and can be found as links to this press release on the FTC’s Web site.
NOTE: Stipulated final orders are for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. A stipulated final order requires approval by the court and has the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the stipulated final orders are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, click: http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/complaint.shtm or call 1-877-382-4357. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,600 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. For free information on a variety of consumer topics, click http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/consumer.shtm.
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