The Federal Trade Commission charged an Ohio-based company and its owner with fraudulently claiming on 17 Web sites they operated that consumers could quickly get out of debt by working with one of several debt settlement companies.
The company owner, Ryan Golembiewski, has agreed to a settlement barring the deceptive claims, and to a judgment requiring him to pay more than $390,000.
United Debt Associates were “lead generators” paid by debt settlement companies to refer consumers who responded to the deceptive ads, according to the complaint.
Using Web sites such as legitimatedebtsettlement.com, debtreliefemergency.com, DebtDecreaser.com, freedebtreductionhelp.com and disputedebts.com, and earning approximately $24.60 per lead generated, the defendants directed consumers to either provide their contact information online, or call a toll-free number for help with their credit card debt. Consumers who called either were routed directly to the debt settlement companies or were asked to provide preliminary information to the defendants, the complaint stated.
According to the complaint, the deceptive claims the defendants used to entice consumers to contact them included:
• “Once creditors agree to make a deal, you can get out of debt from 12 to 36 months.”
• “The U.S. government decided to introduce a stimulus package to boost the financial institutions and prevent them from breaking down. Part of this stimulus money is being utilized by the [c]redit card companies to offer debt settlements to the users.”
• Debt settlement companies “can take all of your outstanding debt and not only eliminate at least 50% of it but also provide a realistic repayment plan for the rest of your debt.”
• “If you play your cards right, your debt problems will vanish before the first year ends.”
Purported consumer testimonials on the defendants’ Web sites, which conveyed the impression that consumers could successfully and quickly reduce or eliminate their debts by using the supposed debt settlement services the defendants advertised, were not genuine, the FTC alleged.
The defendants did not have support for the claims they made that the debt settlement companies would substantially reduce or eliminate consumers’ debts, according to the complaint. Instead, they merely posted claims provided by the debt settlement companies, or copied information from other debt relief Web sites.
In addition to the judgment of more than $390,000, the settlement bans the defendants from engaging in or assisting others to engage in any debt relief service and bars them from making any misrepresentations when marketing a financial product, or any good or service.
The settlement requires substantiation for any benefit, performance or efficacy claim for financial products, and it prohibits disclosure of customer information and requires the defendants to destroy all such information they have within 30 days after the settlement order is approved by a judge.