As part of its continuing crackdown on scams that target consumers in financial distress, the Federal Trade Commission has charged three debt relief operations with making unsubstantiated claims to lure consumers nationwide into paying thousands of dollars in up-front fees, but failing to reduce credit card debts as promised.
According to the FTC’s two complaints, the defendants made deceptive claims that consumers who enrolled in their programs could eliminate 30 to 60 percent of their credit card debt and be out of debt in 18 to 36 months. The defendants marketed their services via websites and TV and radio ads that urged consumers to call toll-free numbers for a free consultation and to enroll in their debt relief programs. One operation claimed to use “secret programs most credit card companies won’t tell you about.” The other operation touted its “established relationships” with creditors and claimed that its program would “save you literally thousands of dollars.” The defendants charged consumers up-front administrative fees, monthly maintenance fees, negotiation fees, and in some instances, a cancellation fee.
The FTC’s complaints charge that few consumers received the promised results. Many consumers canceled or dropped out of the programs before their debt was reduced because they couldn’t afford to pay the defendants’‘ sizable advance fees and accumulate money to pay off their debts.
Consumers looking for help with credit card debt should be wary of anyone who tells them to stop paying their bills, to pay someone other than their creditors, or to stop talking to their creditors. Consumers should also be careful about paying for financial assistance before they receive it. The FTC recently announced changes to the Telemarketing Sales Rule that prohibit companies that sell debt relief services over the telephone from charging fees before they settle or reduce a customers’ credit card or other unsecured debt. This ban on advance fees protects all consumers who enroll in a debt relief service after October 27, 2010, and specifies that fees for debt relief services may not be collected until:
- the debt relief service successfully settles or changes the terms of at least one of the consumer’s debts;
- there is a settlement agreement, debt management plan, or other agreement between the consumer and the creditor that the consumers has agreed to; and
- the consumer has made at least one payment to the creditor as a result of the agreement negotiated by the debt relief provider.
The new provisions of the Rule also prevent debt relief providers from front-loading their fees if a consumer has enrolled multiple debts in one debt relief program. Click here for more information about the advance-fee ban. In addition, the Rule requires debt relief providers to make truthful and substantiated claims about their services. The FTC will actively enforce the Rule and these new provisions, as will the states, which also have enforcement authority under the Telemarketing Sales Rule.
The defendants in one of the two cases announced today are Financial Freedom of America, Inc., now known as Financial Freedom Processing Inc., Corey Butcher, and Brent Butcher. The second case names Debt Consultants of America Inc., Debt Professionals of America Inc., Robert Creel, Corey Butcher, and Nikki Creel, also known as Nikki Vrla.
The Commission vote to file the complaints was 5-0. The complaints were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division.
Click here for facts about settling credit card debts.
NOTE: The Commission authorizes the filing of a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendants have actually violated the law.
The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers 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, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,800 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.(FTC File Nos. 0923056, 0923152)
(Financial Freedom, Debt Consultants)
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