FTC cracks down on advance fees to debt settlement companies

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) adopted strict new rules on Thursday that ban debt settlement companies from charging advance fees for elimination of credit card balances and other consumer debt. Effective Oct. 27, for-profit companies that sell debt relief services by telephone will no longer be allowed to charge a fee before they successfully settle or reduce a consumer’s outstanding debt obligation.

“This rule will stop companies who offer consumers false promises of reducing credit card debts by half or more in exchange for large, upfront fees,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said Thursday, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden. “Too many of these companies pick the last dollar out of consumers’ pockets — and far from leaving them better off, push them deeper into debt, even bankruptcy.”

The rule concerning upfront fees covers for-profit debt relief telemarketers, including credit counseling, debt settlement and debt negotiation services. It does not cover Internet sales or nonprofit firms, but does cover companies that falsely claim nonprofit status.

Scheduled to take effect on Sept. 27 are three additional Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) provisions that will require debt settlement companies to make specific disclosures to consumers; prohibit them from making material misrepresentations; and extending the TSR to cover calls consumers make to these firms in response to debt relief advertising.

Since the start of the recession, consumers from all 50 states have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) about debt settlement companies. In addition to the BBB, angry customers have taken their complaints to their state attorney general. The FTC and state enforcers have brought a combined 259 cases in the past decade to stop deceptive and abusive practices by debt relief providers that have targeted consumers in financial distress.

Attorneys generals from Florida, Maine, Texas, Idaho, Missouri, New York, Illinois, West Virginia, Vermont and Minnesota have taken action against companies such as Debt Settlement America, Debt Rx USA, Financial Freedom of America, Clear Your Debt, Swift Rock Financial Solutions and Credit Solutions, a company that has received over 1,600 complaints in the past 36 months.

“My office works to protect Floridians from misleading debt relief activities by seeking to stop deceptive practices and resolving consumer complaints,” stated Attorney General Bill McCollum. “In these tough economic times, aconsumer’s best defense is to be aware of misleading advertisements and avoid sending money to companies offering such services.”

The rule further specifies that fees for debt settlement services may not be collected until a debt has been successfully renegotiated, settled, reduced or the contract terms have been changed. Moreover, there must be a written settlement agreement, debt management plan or other agreement between the consumer and the creditor and the consumer must have made at least one payment as a result of the agreement negotiated by the debt relief provider.

If a consumer has enrolled multiple debts in one debt relief program, the rule specifies how debt relief providers can collect their fee for each settled debt. To ensure providers do not front-load their fees, the fee for a single debt must be in proportion to the total fee that would be charged if all of the debts had been settled. Alternatively, if the fee is based upon a percentage of what the consumer saves, the percentage charged must be the same for each of the debts.

The rule further specifies that consumer’s maintain fees and savings for debt repayment in a “dedicated account.” However, providers may only require a dedicated account under the following five conditions: the dedicated account is maintained at an insured financial institution; the consumer owns the funds (including any interest accrued); the consumer can withdraw the funds at any time without penalty; the provider does not own or control or have any affiliation with the company administering the account; and the provider does not exchange any referral fees with the company administering the account.

If you have been victimized by a debt relief program, file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office by calling (866) 9-NO-SCAM (866-966-7226) or visiting their website at http://www.myfloridalegal.com. The Federal Trade Commission also offers a variety of resources detailing consumer rights at http://www.ftc.gov.

William E. Lewis Jr. is a credit repair expert with Credit Restoration Consultants and host of “The Credit Report with Bill Lewis” on AM 1470 WWNN, a daily forum for business and financial news, politics, economic trends, and cutting edge issues.

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