Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today took legal action to recover $4.6 million that a bankrupt “debt settlement” company wrongly withheld from its clients in Texas and other states.
In June, Debt Relief USA Inc. of Addison filed for bankruptcy protection in the Northern District of Texas. As a result, more than 2,500 financially distressed customers did not receive the debt relief they were promised. In fact, debtors’ problems were exacerbated by the bankruptcy because some of Debt Relief USA’s clients received no assistance and are now being pursued by collection companies.
According to investigators with the Office of the Attorney General, Debt Relief USA targeted individuals with thousands of dollars in unsecured debt, promising customers it would render them “debt-free in as little as 36 months.”
Under Debt Relief USA’s model, debtors stop paying their debts in order to save the money they would have paid creditors over time. Instead, they paid monthly installments to Debt Relief USA, which promised to later negotiate discounted pay-offs with creditors.
However, investigators indicate that Debt Relief USA assessed an “administration fee” of about 8 percent of each customer’s total debt, as well as monthly “maintenance fees” of up to $40. If the company successfully settled a debt, it then charged a “negotiation fee” of 13 percent of the amount of debt saved.
According to court documents the state filed with the bankruptcy court, Debt Relief USA collected “set-aside” funds from its customers. However, the Texas Finance Code prohibits set-aside funds unless a company is licensed or registered and has posted a bond with the Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. Debt Relief USA failed to meet the legally mandated registration and bond requirements. As a result, the Attorney General has filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy case seeking restitution for financially harmed debtors and the return of any fees paid to Debt Relief USA by current or former clients.
In addition, the Office of the Attorney General moved to protect the defendant’s clients’ privacy by successfully arguing that their names and confidential information be removed from the public record. Further, the Attorney General successfully moved to have the bankruptcy case converted from a Chapter 11 reorganization to a Chapter 7 liquidation with a neutral trustee appointed by the court. The trustee’s duties will include liquidating the debtor and paying claims to creditors.
Investigators with the Office of the Attorney General found that Debt Relief USA often never contacted creditors on behalf of their “clients,” which ultimately damaged its customers’ credit reports and even led to debt collection lawsuits by creditors. Debt Relief USA customers risked the ongoing accruals of late fees, interest, over-limit charges and other fees associated with the creditor’s account. Therefore, even in the event of a settlement, customers often owed significantly more on their accounts, which reduced their overall debt settlement savings. In addition, any savings realized under a settlement would be subject to taxation, since these are considered “income.”
In addition to restitution, the Attorney General seeks civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, as well as attorneys’ fees.