Do those debt relief ads you see on the TV or the offers you get over the phone sound too good to be true?
They are, at least regarding offers from the marketers recently put out of business by the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC announced this week that a settlement agreement has been reached with a deceptive advertising operation, banning the defendants and their companies from the debt relief business and forcing them to surrender money, property and investments.
According to the federal agency, the operation did business under the names of 800 Credit Card Debt and Debt.com and deceptively claimed they would eliminate or reduce consumers' debt quickly and put an end to calls from debt collectors.
The FTC said, in a release, that the ads claimed that We have programs available to help you eliminate your debt by up to 60 percent, and allegedly featured phony testimonials from people posing as satisfied customers.
The defendants also claimed their services were part of a public, non-commercial program, through statements such as, The following is a public announcement . . . Americans who are behind on their credit card payments must take action immediately. If YOU have ten thousand dollars or more in credit card debt, a new relief program is now available. . .
In reality, the defendants had no substantiation for their debt elimination or reduction claims, and did not provide debt settlement services, according to the FTC's complaint.
Instead, the FTC said, they merely sold the sales leads generated by their ads to debt settlement providers, or to other lead generators or lead brokers that re-sold them. The complaint alleges that the defendants had no information about whether the companies that bought the leads could fulfill the promises the defendants made in their ads.
The defendants are Debt.com Marketing, LLC; Media Choice, LLC; 800 Credit Card Debt, LLC; and Stephen Todd Cook.
The settlement order imposes a $28.2 million judgment that will be suspended when the defendants surrender all funds in their corporate bank accounts, as well as the proceeds from the sale of Cook's two properties in California, his real estate in the Virgin Islands, and his ownership interests in two overseas investment funds.
The full judgment will be imposed immediately if the defendants have misrepresented their financial condition, the FTC said.
The settlement order also prohibits the defendants from disclosing or otherwise benefitting from customers' personal information, and failing to dispose of this information properly, authorities said.
The FTC also announced that it had permanently shut down two groups of Florida-based telemarketers that allegedly flooded consumers with misleading pre-recorded robocalls falsely promising to reduce their credit card interest rates.
According to the FTC, JPM Accelerated Services and related defendants made thousands of illegal pre-recorded robocalls to consumers, identifying themselves only as card services and offering lower credit card interest rates. Consumers who pressed 1 after hearing the automated pitch were transferred to live telemarketers who falsely told consumers that JPM's services would allow them to dramatically lower their credit card interest rates.
The complaint alleged that the telemarketers charged an up-front fee typically ranging from $495 to $995, and promised consumers they would save thousands of dollars in a short period of time as a result of the lower interest rates, and that they would be able to pay off their debts faster. The defendants also falsely stated that if consumers did not save thousands of dollars from lowered interest rates, they would receive a full refund of the up-front fee.
After collecting the fee from consumers, however, JPM allegedly failed to deliver the promised interest rate reductions and savings, and routinely refused to honor its money-back guarantee. The FTC complaint also charged the defendants with violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule by calling consumers on the Do Not Call Registry, blocking or spoofing caller ID, and making unlawful robocalls.
The settlement imposes judgments of $5.9 million against defendants associated with JPM, and $3.2 million against six individual defendants associated with an affiliated operation called IXE Accelerated Financial Centers, LLC. The judgments represent the amount of money consumers lost through these robocall schemes.
The judgments are suspended, based on the defendants' inability to pay, but will become due if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition, the FTC said.
Two of the defendants in the IXE operation, Ivan X. Estrella and Jaime Hawley, also are liable for an unsatisfied $75,000 judgment recently entered against them in a case brought by the Florida Attorney General, authorities said.