Since the start of the recession in December of 2007, the Better Business Bureau has received more than 6,000 complaints from consumers about debt relief or debt settlement companies. Typically, complainants say they were charged large up-front fees in exchange for the empty promise that the company would significantly reduce or eliminate their debt.
“The debt relief industry has flourished in the current economy and you can bet that many unscrupulous companies are feverishly trying to figure out ways to get around the new laws, such as relying less on telephones to solicit new customers,” said Mechele Agbayani Mills, President and CEO of BBB Central East Texas. “While these new rules provide effective new protections, consumers still need to be on the lookout for deceptive debt relief services.”
Under the new rule, any company that solicits debt relief services over the phone—including taking incoming calls from new customers—will not be able to charge upfront fees until:
the debt relief service successfully renegotiates, settles, reduces, or otherwise changes the terms of at least one of the consumer’s debts;
there is a written settlement agreement, debt management plan, or other agreement between the consumer and the creditor, and the consumer has agreed to it; and
the consumer has made at least one payment to the creditor as a result of the agreement negotiated by the debt relief provider.
Additionally, debt relief providers cannot require that consumers set aside payments in a “dedicated account” unless:
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.
Finally, before the consumer signs up for any debt relief service, providers must disclose fundamental aspects of their services, including how long it will take for consumers to see results, how much it will cost, the negative consequences that could result from using debt relief services, and key information about dedicated accounts if they choose to require them.
Businesses can learn more about how to follow this new rule on the FTC’s web site: Debt Relief Services & The Telemarketing Sales Rule: A Guide for Business
For more information on managing credit and getting out of debt, check out BBB’s free advice at Managing Credit-Made Simpler.