Here is my definitive guide on how to get out of a scam and get your best shot at getting your money back. Warning, it will take some work, but it can be effective.
“The steps listed in How to Try to Get a Refund From a Debt Relief Company should represent a consumer dropping a “nuclear bomb” on any business.”, says a settlement company president. – Source
Here is some advice from Damian Kutzner, who went to prison for a debt relief scam. When asked What Advice Do You Have for People Who Feel Like They Were Caught in a Debt Relief Scam?, he said, “Show up to their place of business if you live close, sales offices hate that.
Find as many names working at the office, most notably the owners. But don’t stop there, get the secretary, the mailroom names and make everyone uncomfortable for taking your money. As the old saying goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” It is true in sales. So be the loudest online voice with multiple postings and submit a complaint with the CFPB and the BBB. Make a police report.
Submit your SCAM to as many Pro Consumer/Pro Active bloggers and websites as you can.
We used to HATE when Steve Rhode and GetOutOfDebt.org wrote about us. It made our skin crawl. We had to confront it! Which exposed us.
USE THE RESOURCES THAT ARE OUT THERE and DON’T STOP. You will get your money back if you become their biggest headache. Don’t be the fly they try to brush away.” – Source
“Thanks to Steve and GetOutofDebt, we were able to recover enough to pay our bankruptcy lawyer, leaving about $3500 in the hands of the company we trusted. As I look back, they caved in pretty easily, not wanting us to peruse the letter writing to FTC, two state attorney generals, and others. It’s likely I could have pushed for more.
Steve, I can’t say this enough. The [education] you provide is of the greatest value to people like us. All of us.”
A Reasonable Refund Request Process
I’m going to break this process down into logical stages. You need to keep tabs on the items in these stages, so get a shoebox, folder, or just a special drawer to throw all the documentation in as it comes in, or you gather it.
I’m starting with the premise that you are in a debt relief program or have paid for another ongoing service you are not happy with and want out. I’m assuming you have received little to no benefit from the program.
Step 1 – Easy
Start by calling or emailing the company you are having an issue with. Give them a chance to deal with your problem, and if you can’t negotiate a resolution that seems acceptable to both you and the company, then it’s time to start documenting your concerns.
If the company responds promptly and satisfactorily, your problem is solved.
Step 2 – Time to Get a Shoebox or Small Box Ready
If the company didn’t professionally deal with your issue in the first easy step, we would have to get focused and organized. You will need a drawer or small box to start keeping documentation in, like a copy of letters you physically send, proofs of delivery, the company responses, etc.
Step 3 – Necessary
Why write and send physical letters these days? Well, you are going to do just that. Send the company a written letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. The postcard you get back will show the name of the company you sent it to, a signature of who signed for it, and when they got it. Don’t lose that proof of receipt. Please put it in your drawer or box.
There is no reason to be mean and nasty when you write a letter. Be sure you present your side of the issue with a level head reasonable tone. Explain that you are unhappy with their services, tell them why, and say you want out of their program and expect a refund paid by X date. Give them at least two weeks from the day you send your letter to respond.
In the letter, let them know that if you can not come to a mutually agreeable solution, you plan to send a copy of your complaint to the following people:
1. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can file complaint here.
2. Your State Attorney General’s office. For a listing, click here.
3. Your local Better Business Bureau. You can file a complaint online here.
4. Any local consumer affairs office your local county government might have. You can find them by doing an online search.
5. The Federal Trade Commission. You can file a complaint online here.
6. Any trade association the company may belong to.
7. The news department of your local television station(s).
8. If the company is a law firm or run by a lawyer, you can file a complaint with the Bar Association in your state and their state. For a listing of state bar association links, click here.
“As officers of the court, all attorneys are obligated to maintain the highest ethical standards. In furtherance of this obligation, attorneys are guided by a code of conduct, the Code of Professional Responsibility, as adopted by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. Attorneys who violate the law or fail to abide by this code of conduct are subject to discipline, which may include admonishment, reprimand, censure, suspension or loss of his or her license to practice law.” – Source
9. If your money is being deposited in a third-party escrow account with a separate escrow provider, send a copy of your complaint to them.
10. If correspondence is received via the U.S. Postal Service, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service by telephone at (888) 877-7644; by mail at U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Office of Inspector General, Operations Support Group, 222 S. Riverside Plaza, Suite 1250, Chicago, IL 60606-6100; or via the online complaint form.
11. Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Complaint Center (to report scams that may have originated via the internet).
12. National Consumers League (NCL) – file a fraud complaint, visit the NCL fraud website.
13. And most importantly, be sure to file an online scam report with GetOutOfDebt.org.
Step 4 – Protect Your Money
Contact your bank and find out what you need to do to stop any additional debits by the company from your account if you feel as if you must stop any more payments. For example, the bank may say you will have to change your checking account number. Yes, that’s a pain in the ass, but it will prevent future debits.
Before you leap to do that, make sure you’ve read the refund section of your client agreement to ensure that stopping payments lets the company off the hook.
If your money is being deposited into a third-party escrow account, contact the escrow company, tell them you want a full refund of the money in your account, and you want to close your account if it does not impact your ability to get a refund from the company you are trying to get out of.
Step 5 – Be Patient
Any communications you receive from this point forward, put in a special safe place. If you get emails, print them out. Put everything n that drawer or box you are using to save things on this issue.
If they call you, keep a written log of when they called, who you spoke with, and what the conversation was about.
Step 6 – Do What You Said You Would Do if They Ignore You
If the company does not contact or respond to you by the date you specified in the letter, do what you said you would do and file the complaints.
Step 7 – The Company Response is a Partial Refund
If the company does respond and makes you a partial refund offer that is acceptable to you, accept the offer but make sure the offer does not come with a requirement for you to waive any of your rights.
Some companies want people to sign statements they will not speak out against the company or waive any further claim. If the company has harmed you, that seems like an unreasonable thing for you to waive. However, only you can decide what is best for you to do when presented with an offer. If you are unsure what rights you may waive, find a local attorney licensed in your state for help.
Step 7 – The Company Response is Not Acceptable
If the offer is unacceptable or the company does not respond, file a complaint with the people I mentioned above. If you send your complaint by mail to those other resources, including copies of your original letter and the return receipt card showing the company received it. Send these complaints by mail using certified mail, return receipt requested as well. The goal here is to document everything.
If you file it online, print a copy of the screen before you hit submit and also print the receipt on the screen after filing it or the confirmation email, you might receive.
Step 8 – Keep the Company Informed
Send the company copies of the complaints you send to others as you send them. Then, send them to the company by certified mail, return receipt requested if you want maximum attention.
Once you file complaints with the folks, I listed above, you may notice the company is much more willing to refund your money and put this matter behind them. But, again, this is because they want to avoid irritating state regulators, damaging their BBB reputation, and becoming the subject of an FTC or CFPB investigation.
It sometimes seems they hold off making a refund to see how serious you are about complaining.
Step 9 – A Real Time Suck But Can Be Worth It
If you still have not received a fair and reasonable refund, then contact your local court and find out how to sue the company in small claims court for your refund. Typically the amounts claimed are eligible to be pursued by individuals this way. And if you go this route, all those documents you’ve placed in your special place will come in very handy; take them all with you when you go for your court date.
If you are not confident to file your small claims suit, then find a local consumer advocate attorney here. Make sure the attorney you select is licensed to practice law in your state.
All I Can Say is Most People Find This Process Helpful
If you have paid thousands of dollars to a company you are claiming has not helped you, while the process above is a bit time-consuming and involves some cost, it will be a worthwhile attempt to get a refund.
Most people that follow this process should expect to get a negotiated acceptable refund or an entire refund of the fees paid if you file your request before the company files for bankruptcy. In my experience, debt relief companies that do not communicate well and are not reasonable are headed to an unfortunate end. Some file for bankruptcy protection, and some vanish.
Attorney Richard Fossey also wrote about what to do to get issues resolved. Read his post here.
If you are still unhappy with the company, feel free to file a scam report here.
Originally published June 30, 2010.