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New laws to fight deceptive debt relief

Good news for those struggling to pay their bills: all of the new Federal Trade Commission regulations to help protect financially-desperate families from deceptive offers for debt relief will go into effect on October 27, 2010.  While the new rule will have a significant impact on reducing predatory debt relief, the Better Business Bureau advises consumers that they still need to use caution when enlisting the help of a third party to get out of debt.

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 Ken Vander Meeden, President of the BBB Serving Western Michigan.  “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 Business Center web site: http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus72-debt-relief-services-telemarketing-sales-rule-guide-business

For more information on managing credit and getting out of debt, check out the BBB’s free online advice at:  http://www.bbb.org/credit-management/

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