A couple of days ago I saw the press release for “Drop Debt” by Harvey Z. Warren and thought, “Hum, that names sounds familiar from the past.” In a twist of “what a small world it is” it came to me. There was a Harvey Warren that I remember getting slammed by the FTC a number of years ago for a “bogus” [FTC’s word, not mine] debt relief nonprofit called National Consumer Council.
Could it possibly be the same dude? What would the odds of that be? Apparently, pretty damn good.
The connection was easy to make, Warren tells us so. – Source
Now if Warren has turned his efforts to help people overcome debt problems, then kudos for him. But in reading his release on the new book and book tour I had instant flashbacks to an episode in the history of nonprofit credit counseling that was most unpleasant.
Apparently Harvey Warren, who now goes by Harvey Z. Warren is trying help educate people about debt, and that’s a good thing. [Insert applause here.]
But the scary part of the release was when it said, “[Warren] is actively fostering a powerful national coalition of consumer advocates, lawyers, banking and collection leadership to establish guidelines for non-adversarial debt relief through non-profit credit counseling.” – Source
“Oh crap,” I thought, “Let’s not hope it’s not here we go again.”
To me that message makes me flashback to a message off the NCC website in 2002 that said, “The National Consumer Council is working hard to have creditors and collection agencies develop a standard for determining a fair and reasonable “hardship.” When this is achieved, creditors and collection agencies will stop collection calls when they are informed that an NCC sponsor is involved because of their hardship.”
Now keep in mind what Warren wants to create as you read the history of what happened previously.
The National Consumer Council was an operation that involved others but also Harvey Warren and Walter Ledda, the now Chairman and CEO of Morgan Drexen, a company currently offering debt settlement services. And while I’m sure Ledda and Warren would prefer I not talk about this, it is all a matter of public record and the collective memory of many involved in credit counseling back in 2000.
To lay the foundation I’ll let the Federal Trade Commission tell part of the story for you. In fact most of this story is going to be told by others in their own words.
Bogus “Nonprofit” Debt Negotiation Companies Misled Consumers in Financial Trouble and Violated Do Not Call Registry
The Federal Trade Commission has filed a complaint against a group of defendants masquerading as a nonprofit debt negotiation organization that has made millions of dollars deceiving consumers into enrolling in their debt negotiation program by promising to reduce their debts. The FTC alleges that National Consumer Council’s (NCC) business practices violate the FTC Act, which bars deceptive practices, and have harmed consumers throughout the country. The FTC also charges that the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) by calling consumers who placed their phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry. At the FTC’s request, a U.S. district court judge has issued a temporary restraining order barring the defendants’ illegal activities.
“These defendants demonstrate contempt for consumer privacy and the law,” said FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris. “The National Do Not Call Registry empowers American consumers to control the volume of calls they receive at home. We’re pleased that the overwhelming majority of legitimate companies are complying with the Do Not Call Registry. Nonetheless, we will continue to pursue those that ignore consumers’ wishes not to be called.”
The FTC alleges that the defendants, operating a complex web of companies advertised as National Consumer Council, leave pre-recorded messages on consumers’ home answering machines claiming NCC is a nonprofit organization that will stop creditors’ collection efforts and significantly reduce consumers’ debt. Consumers responding to these solicitations allegedly are encouraged to enroll in a debt negotiation program. In reality, the FTC contends, the defendants’ “program” is, in many cases, ineffective in reducing consumers’ debt and has inflicted severe harm on consumers. According to papers filed with the court, the defendants’ program worsened the financial situation of many consumers so that they had little choice but to file for bankruptcy.
According to the FTC, the defendants fail to tell consumers that in the debt negotiation program, defendants often will not begin negotiating a consumer’s debts for six months or longer, and that creditors’ collection efforts not only do not stop, but often become more aggressive. The FTC also alleges that the defendants fail to disclose other negative consequences, including that: a) consumers’ accounts will become delinquent; b) late fees, penalties, and interest may accrue on their debt; c) consumers’ creditors may sue to collect on debts, and if a judgment is obtained, may garnish consumers’ wages; d) creditors may raise the interest rates applicable to accounts because no one is making minimum monthly payments on the accounts; e) in those instances where defendants negotiate a reduced debt amount, consumers may be liable for federal and state taxes on the amount their debt is reduced; and f) in those instances when defendants negotiate a reduced debt amount, a negative “settled for less than full amount” notation may appear on their credit reports.
The FTC further alleges that the defendants take hundreds of dollars from consumers’ monthly payments as fees, which they do not always disclose, and that consumers’ monthly payments will not be applied to their trust accounts until these fees are paid in full. As a consequence, many consumers are shocked to see that after making hundreds of dollars in monthly payments to defendants, their debts actually have increased.
“NCC was calling people they shouldn’t have been calling, and claiming things they shouldn’t have been claiming,” said Howard Beales, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “These defendants lied about their nonprofit status, and intentionally put consumers in harm’s way financially. Stopping this kind of illegal activity is what the FTC is all about.”
According to the FTC, the defendants also violated the TSR by calling consumers who have registered their telephone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry and by continuing to call consumers who previously have stated that they do not wish to receive calls from the defendants. The FTC also alleges that the defendants have called phone numbers in area codes throughout the country without first paying the access fee for the Registry and without removing from their call lists those phone numbers that appear on the Registry. This is the FTC’s first case alleging violations involving the Do Not Call Registry.
The Do Not Call Registry was launched on June 27, 2003, and currently contains nearly 60 million phone numbers. The FTC staff had predicted that the Registry would reach 60 million registrations in June 2004.
Finally, the FTC’s complaint alleges that four corporate defendants, London Financial Group; National Consumer Council, a Nevada corporation; National Consumer Debt Council, LLC; and Solidium, LLC, violated the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act by failing to provide consumers with required written privacy notices.
The FTC received invaluable assistance on this case from the California Department of Corporations and the Better Business Bureau of the Southland.
The agency’s complaint names as defendants National Consumer Council, an Arizona corporation; National Consumer Council, a California corporation; National Consumer Council, a Nevada corporation; London Financial Group; National Consumer Debt Council, LLC; Solidium, LLC d/b/a Solidium Credit Recovery Services; United Consumers Law Group; J.P. Landis, LLC; Financial Rescue Services, Inc.; Signature Equities, LLC; M&L Springfield Trust; PC Hailey Trust; Via Lido Trust; Walter L. Haines a/k/a Walter L. Hainowitz; Paul Kardos; Walter Joseph Ledda a/k/a Walter W. Ledda; Harvey Warren a/k/a Harvey W. Zvansky; Martha K. Levitsky a/k/a Martha E. Kerchen; and Mary Beth Harper a/k/a Mary Beth Scholz. On May 3, 2004, a U.S. district court judge issued a temporary restraining order that imposed an asset freeze on all but one corporate defendant, United Consumers Law Group, and appointed a temporary receiver as to all but defendant United Consumers Law Group and the six individual defendants.
The complaint filed in that case has this to say about Warren. – Source
“Defendant HARVEY WARREN a/k/a Harvey W. Zvansky (“Warren”) holds key positions at each of the three NCC entities.
He is the President, Vice President, and Director of NCC-AZ; the President, Secretary, and Director of NCC-NV; and Chief Executive Officer, Secretary, and Chief Financial Officer of NCC-CA. At all times material to this complaint, acting alone or in concert with others, he has formulated, directed, controlled, or participated in the acts and practices of NCC-AZ, NCC-NV, and NCC-CA, including the acts and practices set forth in this complaint. Warren transacts or has transacted business in the Central District of California and throughout the United States.” – Source
Before anyone says that Warren and Ledda were really distant business executives and had nothing to do with each other in this mess. Here is what the FTC says Ledda’s role was:
Defendant WALTER J. LEDDA a/k/a Walter W. Ledda (“Ledda”)is an officer, director, and/or co-owner of LFG. He is the grantor, trustee, and beneficiary of Via Lido Trust. Through Via Lido Trust, which is one-third owner of Signature Equities, he is also an owner of NCDC. Through NCDC and LFG, he is also an owner of Solidium. At all times material to this complaint, acting alone or in concert with others, he has formulated, directed, controlled, or participated in the acts and practices of LFG, Solidium, NCDC, JP Landis, NCC-AZ, NCC-NV, and NCC-CA, including the acts and practices set forth in this complaint. – Source
So Warren was “President, Secretary, and Director of NCC-NV; and Chief Executive Officer, Secretary, and Chief Financial Officer of NCC-CA” and Ledda “formulated, directed, controlled, or participated in the acts and practices of … NCC-AZ, NCC-NV, and NCC-CA.”
The official receiver that took over the operations of these companies had a lot to say about their history, the operations and how they were controlled. I’m going to excerpt out parts of the long report by the receiver but you can read the entire document here.
Of particular note is the fact the report makes Harvey Warren out to be the guy placed out front of the operation and who wound up taking a huge fall but received little of the financial reward from the operation.
National Consumer Council, Inc., an Arizona Corporation (NCC-AZ), was formed in February 1995 by Walter Haines as a non-profit corporation. National Consumer Council, Inc., a California Corporation (NCC-CA), was formed in July 2001 as a non-profit corporation. However, the Internal Revenue Service and the Franchise Tax Board of California do not currently recognize its non-profit status. National Consumer Council, Inc., a Nevada Corporation (NCC-NV), was formed in August 2001 also as a non-profit corporation. Harvey Warren was employed by Walter Haines through the board of directors and was holding key positions at each of the three NCC entities. – Source
The background for-profit enterprises were actually controlled by Ledda, Kardos, and Haines. Again, from the same report:
Walter Haines, Paul Kardos, and Walter Ledda each hold a one-third ownership interest in Signature Equities, LLC (Signature Equities) through M&L Springfield Trust, PC Hailey Trust, and Via Lido Trust, respectively. Signature Equities was formed under Delaware law in February 2001 with an original name of National Consumer Debt Council, LLC and changed to its current name in April 2001.
Signature Equities currently owns National Consumer Debt Council, LLC (NCDC), formed under California law in December 2000, Solidium, formed under California law in March 2002, and JP Landis, formed under California law in June 2003.
LFG was formed as a Nevada Corporation in January 1997. Paul Kardos and Walter Ledda each hold a 50% ownership interest in LFG. – Source
The report lays out, in detail exactly what the business activities of the larger enterprise was. LFG = London Financial Group. UCLG = United Consumers Law Group.
Prior to July 2003, NCC-AZ used an 82 unit automated dialing system owned by LFG. The marketing process completed hundreds of thousands of recorded telephone calls to consumers throughout the United States on a daily basis. NCC-AZ identified itself as National Consumer Council, a nonprofit mediator and arbitrator providing free debt relief assistance. Harvey Warren also promoted NCC’s business through paid “public service announcements” on television.
When an interested consumer, responding to either automated telephone messages or televised public service announcements, called the toll-free number, one of the pre-screeners in the call center of NCC-CA answered and identified himself/herself simply as from NCC. NCC-CA had about 27 employees in its call center operation. According to the Chief Financial Officer of LFG, the prescreeners would introduce to the consumer NCC’s services in the areas of legal referral, financial guidance, bankruptcy issues, debt reduction, as well as by providing educational documents. For those consumers who were interested in, and qualified for, the debt reduction program, primarily with a minimum level of debt and the ability to make a certain monthly payment, the pre-screeners would document certain personal information. The pre-screener would then arrange a telephone-interview appointment for the consumer with one of the so-called debt consultants from NCDC, introduced as a “Sponsoring Company.”
NCDC would call and interview the interested consumers for more detailed information and promote one of its debt negotiation programs from the information obtained. If a sale was completed, the consumer was assigned to one of the following programs: NCDC (itself), UCLG, generally for those cases in which the credit card companies dealt only with a law firm, or Consumer Guidance Corporation (CGC), a third party entity involving Consumer Credit Counseling Services programs sponsored by the credit card companies. NCDC used to have about 60 to 110 employees. Subsequent to June 2003, JP Landis took over the program sales (or debt consulting) function from NCDC as described above to avoid the name confusion between NCC and NCDC. In addition to its call center operation of program sales (or debt consulting), JP Landis also performed an advertising function using mainly the mass mailing capacity, but with some television and radio advertisements to promote its for-profit services. JP Landis had about 100 employees.
During this period, NCC started using the well equipped mailing production operation owned by LFG to mail hundreds of thousands of solicitation letters, along with auto-dialing recorded messages and paid public service announcements on television, to reach the general public and promote debt reduction programs while featuring NCC’s non-profit status.
Company personnel advised the Temporary Receiver that current marketing efforts include using the auto-dialer to initiate about one million recorded messages per day and mailing about one hundred fifty thousand solicitation letters per day. According to the Information Technology director and certain reviewed documents, the automated dialing system was in the process of being moved to Argentina when the TRO was issued. The Temporary Receiver suspended the installation of T-1 lines and other relocation activities. – Source
Income from the operation was substantial. The report states, “During the period from January 1, 2002 to March 31, 2004, Harvey Warren received compensation totaling approximately $575,000 in the form of salary and bonus from NCC-CA. In addition to the regular salary, NCC-CA also paid a $10,000 bonus to Mr. Warren on April 9, 2004.” – Source
But others in the operation are reported to have made a lot more money. “In summary, during a 27.7-month period between January 1, 2002 and April 23, 2004, the common enterprise paid $12,072,800 to its three ultimate owners/controllers, an average of approximately $435,000 per month.” – Source
Here is what the BBB had to say about Warren and the operation.
So it seems that a negative Better Business Bureau reliability report can inspire outrage when it strikes a nerve as it hits the bulls-eye in our aim for truth and accuracy. That outrage can be expressed in a number of ways, including attempts to discredit us and lawsuits. One we’d never before experienced though, came from the National Consumer Council, against whom the Federal Trade Commission has recently filed a complaint.
NCC is a nonprofit organization that solicited business by computer-generated calls. They sought out the debt-ridden, offering them a debt-negotiation program to reduce their debt and stop creditors’ collection efforts. Once enrolled, consumers were referred to for-profit companies controlled by NCC. Consumers were instructed to make payments to NCC, rather than to their creditors, and were told that once enough money had accumulated, NCC would negotiate with their creditors on their behalf.
Already submerged in debt, these consumers usually found themselves in deeper water: their debts remained unpaid, their credit ratings plunged, and some had to file for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, on NCC’s website, (no longer in operation, at this writing) in a press release of February 2002, its President, Harvey Warren, beamed as he shook the hand of California Congressman Brad Sherman, satisfied at having “. . . brought 900 documented cases of economic hardship to the attention of the House Banking and Finance Committee in an effort to underscore the dangers of indiscriminate use of credit card arbitration clauses.” The release went on to point out that “consumers from all walks of life who find themselves facing insoluble debt crisis turn to the NCC for help.”
Warren appeared in other photos with California Senator Barbara Boxer, California Congressman Henry Waxman, and State legislators. And a 2001 NCC press release noted that “Mr. Warren is well known for his non-profit peace activities with Arts4Peace which he founded in 1998.” (His Arts4Peace website currently seeks tax-deductible donations for the organization’s projects.) That article also quoted Warren as saying, “I am extremely excited by the opportunity to reach out to good people throughout the U.S. who are struggling with crushing debt.”
During this time period, complaints to the Bureau continued to mount. Some complained about what they paid NCC for and didn’t get, and some complained only about solicitation calls they received from NCC again and again and again. (At least one state’s Attorney General has charged NCC with violating that state’s no-call law.)
NCC’s Team 4 Reports featured NCC in a story last August, in which Warren defined NCC’s mission as to “return people to a debt-free standard of living.”
But consumers interviewed by Team 4 were less positive. And Bureau President Bill Mitchell told Team 4 then that “[t]hey (NCC) use this nonprofit shield to legitimize their operation,” to which Warren responded, “We’re really trying to work the public agenda. Why the BBB has taken issue with us, I cannot explain.”
Not long afterward, NCC sued the Bureau, claiming libel by the Bureau among other allegations. (The Bureau has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and the court has indicated its intention to grant this motion.)
The Better Business Bureau’s reliability report has rated the company’s business performance record as unsatisfactory since at least June 2002. It reports complainants’ allegations that the company failed to pay, or even to contact, creditors, while debtors accumulated late penalties and interest.
The FTC’s complaint alleges that NCC has “made millions of dollars deceiving consumers into enrolling in their debt negotiation program . . .” It seeks consumer redress and disgorgement of ill-gotten gains. The California Department of Corporations, with the FTC, raided the company’s offices, issued a Desist and Refrain Order to Warren and others for operating without a prorater’s license, and assigned a receiver to take control of its operation. [Cease & desist order naming Warren and Ledda is here]
CDC’s interviews with some of the company’s former employees revealed that company personnel met regularly to seek ways to deal with the Bureau’s report because of its negative effect on the company’s business. They also revealed that NCC principals, in what is perhaps the most vehement display of outrage we’ve ever encountered, used the occasion of the company’s black-tie holiday party to say Merry Christmas to some 1,000 attendees by showing a video depicting, in one segment, company principals as U.S. troops ousting an image of Bill Mitchell (BBB Prsident) superimposed over that of Saddam Hussein from the hole where Saddam was hiding at the time of his capture.
NCC is not the only company that reacts with outrage when the Bureau disseminates a negative report about them. Others try to talk their way out of a negative report, and sometimes they, too, sue us. Always we review our report and hold to it unless the circumstances and facts warrant a change.
The Better Business Bureau works closely with government agencies, although that work is rarely brought to the attention of the public. (In the NCC case, the FTC did acknowledge the “invaluable assistance” of both the Better Business Bureau and the Department of Corporations.) We urge action by appropriate agencies against a company based upon the complaints we have received against it, for we are the only organization that assists individuals in resolving their complaints and we are thus the organization to which most consumers complain.
We remind our readers to keep checking our reliability reports before doing business. We’re often way ahead of the game. – Source
In May 2004, the FTC filed a complaint against a group of companies and individual defendants, fronted by “National Consumer Council” (NCC), a purported nonprofit organization, that solicited customers through an aggressive telemarketing and direct mail advertising campaign that falsely promised free debt counseling. In fact, NCC’s role in the scheme was simply to generate leads for the other defendants, who then charged consumers thousands of dollars in fees to enroll in their debt negotiation programs. The defendants deceptively claimed these programs were an effective way to stop creditors’ collection efforts and eliminate their debts. The FTC alleged that the defendants failed to disclose important information to consumers before they enrolled, including the fact that very few people were able to reduce their debts through the debt negotiation programs; consumers would suffer late fees, penalties, and other charges; and that participation in the program might hurt their credit rating. A court-appointed receiver determined that less than two percent of the consumers who enrolled in the defendants’ debt negotiation programs – 638 out of 44,844 consumers – actually completed them. [Does that sound familiar to anyone in debt settlement?]
The FTC’s complaint also alleged that the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), including the National Do Not Call Registry provisions, by calling consumers who had placed their phone numbers on the Registry and claiming that NCC was a nonprofit organization exempt from the Do Not Call requirements. The complaint further alleged that some of the defendants violated the Gramm-Leach-Bliley (GLB) Act by failing to inform consumers how their personal financial information would be used.
At the FTC’s request, a federal district court appointed a receiver over defendants National Consumer Council, an Arizona corporation; National Consumer Council, a California corporation; National Consumer Council, a Nevada corporation, London Financial Group; National Consumer Debt Council, LLC; Solidium, LLC; J.P. Landis, LLC; Financial Rescue Services, Inc. (FRS); Signature Equities, LLC; M&L Springfield Trust; PC Hailey Trust; Via Lido Trust; and United Consumers Law Group. The receiver has returned approximately $24 million in consumer funds held in defendants’ trust accounts. The receiver also is winding down the corporations’ business operations.
The FTC entered into separate settlements with the receivership defendants and each of the individual defendants. The stipulated settlement orders bar the defendants from making false claims for debt negotiation services or any other product or service. The orders require that, prior to enrolling any consumer in a debt negotiation plan, the defendants must clearly disclose that: (1) late fees, penalties, and interest will continue to accrue on the consumer’s debt until the consumer’s creditors accept and receive a settlement; (2) a consumer’s creditors may still sue to collect on the debts and garnish the consumer’s wages; (3) interest rates applicable to the consumer’s debt may increase; (4) any money a consumer saves in negotiating a settlement with a creditor must be treated as income for tax purposes; and (5) a debt settled for less than the full amount owed may result in a negative notation on the consumer’s credit report. The orders also prohibit the defendants from engaging in abusive telemarketing practices, including violations of the National Do Not Call Registry, and require them to comply with the GLB Act.
In addition, settlements with the corporate receivership defendants require them to pay $1 million in consumer redress. The stipulated orders against defendants Walter Haines, Paul Kardos, and Walter Ledda require them to pay $605,000, $1,860,000, and $1,356,000, respectively. The orders against each of these defendants include a suspended judgment of $84.3 million, the amount of fees these defendants received from consumers. If any of these defendants fail to make their payments within the time allotted in the order, or if it is found that they misrepresented their financial status, they will be held liable for the entire $84.3 million. The stipulated orders against defendants Mary Beth Harper and Martha Levitsky include a suspended monetary judgment of $17.8 million for the fees their company, defendant FRS, received from consumers; they will be liable for the entire $17.8 million if it is found that they misrepresented their financial condition to the FTC. The stipulated order against defendant Harvey Warren includes a suspended monetary judgment of $84.3 million for the fees received from consumers; Warren will be liable for the entire $84.3 million if it is found that he misrepresented his financial condition to the FTC. – Source
And before anyone gets all in a bunch about me disclosing that Walter Ledda had this issue out there, it was actually disclosed by Morgan Drexen in documentation submitted to the Federal Trade Commission during the telemerketing sales rule promulgation process. A fact that struck me at the time and I had filed away in my debt relief subconscious which came back to life when I saw Waren’s book announcement.
Here is what Morgan Drexen had to say about all of this to the FTC.
MD’s Chairman of the Board was one of the founding executives of Ditech Mortgage Corporation (the nation’s first Internet-based mortgage provider), subsequently pioneered automation of debt settlement services as an executive with a former debt relief services company, and is a trained concert orchestra violinist. [He is a signatory to a FTC consent order, which was entered into “without adjudication of any issue of fact or law” (Settlement Agreement, at 3); in which he categorically did not admit, and specifically denied “liability as to the charges in the Complaint… [which] shall not be interpreted to constitute an admission that he has engaged in any violations of any law or regulations” (Stipulated Findings of Fact, at 4, ¶7); the Final Order “is remedial in nature and shall not be construed as the payment of a fine, penalty, punitive assessment, or forfeiture” (Stipulated Findings of Fact, at 4, ¶13); and he neither has violated nor facilitated anyone else to violate the Final Order. He is observant of all FTC regulatory requirements and initiatives.] – Source
But it appears in their disclosure they failed to mention the $1,356,000 payment Ledda personally had to make as a result of the action, not to mention the million in corporate redress the companies had to pay “in which he categorically did not admit, and specifically denied “liability as to the charges in the Complaint.”
And besides, all you have to do is enter “Walter Ledda” into Google keys parts of this stuff pop up in the first five listings.
So your homework is to share your opinion, feedback and comments about what, if anything, the debt relief industry learned from the entire NCC mess. Was anything learned? Will we learn from history or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes again.
For extra credit, if anyone knows what Walter Haines and Paul Kardos went on to do, please share. They seem to have fallen off the debt relief map after this.
I can always use your help. If you have a tip or information you want to share, you can get it to me confidentially if you click here.