Peddling Relief, Firms Put Debtors in Deeper Hole
PALM BEACH, Fla. — For the companies that promise relief to Americans confronting swelling credit card balances, these are days of lucrative opportunity.
So lucrative, that an industry trade association, the United States Organizations for Bankruptcy Alternatives, recently convened here, in the oceanfront confines of the Four Seasons Resort, to forge deals and plot strategy.
The debt settlement industry can afford some extravagance. The long recession has delivered an abundance of customers — debt-saturated Americans, suffering lost jobs and income, sliding toward bankruptcy. The settlement companies typically harvest fees reaching 15 to 20 percent of the credit card balances carried by their customers, and they tend to collect upfront, regardless of whether a customer’s debt is actually reduced.
State attorneys general from New York to California and consumer watchdogs like the Better Business Bureau say the industry’s proceeds come at the direct expense of financially troubled Americans who are being fleeced of their last dollars with dubious promises.
Consumers rarely emerge from debt settlement programs with their credit card balances eliminated, these critics say, and many wind up worse off, with severely damaged credit, ceaseless threats from collection agents and lawsuits from creditors.
In the Kansas City area, Linda Robertson, 58, rues the day she bought the pitch from a debt settlement company advertising on the radio, promising to spare her from bankruptcy and eliminate her debts. She wound up sending nearly $4,000 into a special account established under the company’s guidance before a credit card company sued her, prompting her to drop out of the program.
By then, her account had only $1,470 remaining: The debt settlement company had collected the rest in fees. She is now filing for bankruptcy. Source: New York Times June 19, 2010