US officials and companies have warned that several companies that promise to help consumers reduce their debts are attempting to skirt new Federal Trade Commission rules on abusive behaviour by posing as lawyers or making solicitations in person instead of by phone.
The companies collect billions of dollars in fees in return for promises to help consumers reduce credit card and other debts, but in most cases do not provide any relief, said Christopher Viale, chief executive of Cambridge Credit Counseling, a non-profit consumer advocacy group.
The FTC introduced rules on October 27 designed to stop abuses, but federal officials said companies were already trying to find ways to get around the new regulations. “There are too many companies that think they have found loopholes when they really have not,” said Allison Brown, the FTC’s acting assistant director in its consumer protection bureau.
Ms Brown said the FTC had stepped up “law enforcement efforts” to target these companies. The maximum penalty is $16,000 per violation.
In one of the more popular schemes, debt settlement companies take advantage of a clause in the FTC rules that exempts attorneys by claiming that they have staff lawyers who personally handle client cases when, in fact, they have no lawyers licensed to practice in the state where they are soliciting clients.
The North Carolina attorney-general recently brought civil charges against a Florida company for collecting $1.8m in unauthorized fees by falsely promising that its debt settlement services would be performed by lawyers.
Norman Googel, an assistant attorney-general in West Virginia, said about half of all debt settlement complaints now involve companies posing as law firms. “It’s a total sham, and it’s one of our biggest concerns,” Mr Googel said.
Because the FTC rules also do not apply to face-to-face solicitations, debt settlement firms have started to use “runners” – employees who go door-to-door to solicit clients in person.
Other companies have tried to sidestep language that specifically bans abusive telemarketing practices by using text messaging. Customers who responded to a text message sent by USA Consumer Advocates, a company based in Huntington Beach, California that promises to “reduce your debt”, were asked for a 10 per cent retainer, according to marketing materials reviewed by the Financial Times, even though the new rules clearly ban such upfront fees. A Consumer Advocates spokeswoman declined to comment.
Officials said they were also concerned by a growing number of debt settlement firms that imply their programmes are government-funded. In one mailing, a company used the phrase “national debt relief stimulus plan” and provided consumers with a case number, implying that they had been pre-approved for a government programme, when no such programme exists, said Elizabeth Blackston, an assistant attorney-general in Illinois.
Get alerts on Federal Trade Commission US when a new story is published