IRS, FTC examine consumer credit counseling firms

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Consumers looking for help paying their debts should be wary of debt management services that charge high fees and offer little counseling, the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday.

"Consumers who are struggling financially need to be careful not to lose even more money to someone offering a quick and easy way to fix credit problems," said Federal Trade Commission chairman Timothy Muris.

Late credit card payments hit a record high during the first quarter of the year, according to the American Bankers Association. The seasonally adjusted percentage of credit card accounts 30 or more days past due reached 4.07 percent during the first three months of the year, then edged down to 4.04 percent the following three months.

Consumer credit services are funded by credit card companies and traditionally teach budgeting and other financial skills to those overwhelmed by credit card debt. They also analyze a consumer's debt load and recommend a strict budget, a consolidated debt repayment plan or sometimes bankruptcy.

Travis Plunkett, legislative director at the Consumer Federation of America, said more organizations are omitting educational services and pushing debt-management plans, or DMPs, often with high fees and high interest rates. They are "national, aggressive firms that advertise widely and have become what's known in the industry as DMP mills," he said.

Missouri lawsuit

Last month, Missouri sued credit-counseling service AmeriDebt, accusing the company of defrauding indebted consumers of millions of dollars through excessive, hidden fees while falsely pitching itself as nonprofit.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon said Maryland-based AmeriDebt secretly functions as a profit-driven company in which "credit counselors" or "debt professionals" -- untrained in such roles -- act more as commission-collecting peddlers of fee-based debt-management plans.

"Unfortunately, with its high, hidden fees and lack of any significant credit counseling, AmeriDebt has served more as an anchor than a life preserver for many consumers," Nixon said in announcing the lawsuit, filed in St. Louis Circuit Court.

AmeriDebt was sued for similar reasons in February in Illinois.

In the Missouri matter, AmeriDebt said it was "surprised and disappointed" by the lawsuit, saying that during its six years of operation nationwide it "has an exemplary record of helping needy debtors negotiate lower interest rates and payments."

On its Web site, AmeriDebt casts itself as "the friend of consumers in crisis," having worked with 400,000 people -- with more than 90,000 clients still on the books as of July. The company said that any consumer complaints are resolved in the client's favor.

Organizations that only consolidate debt and set up repayment plans while offering little counseling do not qualify as nonprofit, charitable organizations. Spurred by increasing consumer complaints, the IRS and FTC announced they will investigate nonprofit credit counseling services to make sure they serve consumers and qualify for their tax-exempt status.

The IRS said new credit counseling organizations will undergo a full review that includes an analysis of marketing materials. The IRS has also started auditing some tax-exempt organizations.

"It is not fair to taxpayers struggling with financial problems to be taken advantage of by credit counseling groups exploiting gaps in the law," said IRS commissioner Mark Everson.

Before signing up with a debt counseling service, consumers should make sure the organization offers educational programs and call the Better Business Bureau. Consumers should also read all contracts and look for sign-up fees and monthly charges.

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