“Let us dramatically reduce your debt!” “We can save hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars on your high interest credit card bills!” “Find financial freedom!”
OK, it’s not all hogwash. But all too many companies make promises they can’t keep, or they sell services that you could perform yourself for free.
Pat Trematore fell victim to one of these scams. The 77-year-old Nutley woman shares her home with two grown daughters and their five children. The large family lives on Trematore’s Social Security and her daughters’ part-time paychecks.
So when Trematore received a call from someone promising to lower the interest rates on her credit cards, she was eager to learn more.
The telephone representative was from a company called Accelerated Debt Relief. The firm first contacted Trematore a year ago in October 2008.
Trematore thought the price was exorbitant but as a woman of her word, felt obligated to continue because she already said yes the week before.
A few weeks later, the rep called Trematore and initiated several three-way calls with Trematore’s credit card companies. Of four credit cards, the rep was able to secure a rate reduction for only one card.
“Nothing much gained there,’’ Trematore said.
Shortly thereafter, Trematore received a very professional-looking folder with a printout of all her credit card accounts and interest rates. The name on the folder was “IXE Accelerated Debt Relief.” The company name was different, but Trematore didn’t notice. She decided to eat the $895 and put the error behind her.
Then the whammy: In February 2009, she received her Capital One credit card statement. It had a charge for $895 — a new charge. She immediately wrote a letter to the company saying she never authorized a second charge. The letter was returned undeliverable. Phone calls were unsuccessful.
So, she turned to Capital One. Trematore completed forms detailing what happened. The charge was put in dispute.
She requested Capital One change her card number to avoid further unauthorized charges, but she said they never complied. She then cancelled the card.
Then in June, Trematore received a letter from Capital One saying the company received new information proving Trematore agreed to the $895 February charge.
That’s when she contacted Bamboozled.
THE DEBT RELIEF COMPANIES
Phone calls by Bamboozled to every phone number we could find associated with these companies were answered with, “The number has been disconnected,” or “You have reached a number that is not in service.” We also found other companies with similar names, and those, too, had telephone numbers that were not operational.
Suspicious, for sure.
We checked the Better Business Bureau.
Accelerated Debt Relief had a grade of “F,” with a total of 73 complaints to BBB Nationwide in the last 36 months. Of those, the company failed to respond to the complaint in 54 cases, and the remainder were ‘‘unpursuable,’’ which means the company could not be located.
No better for IXE Financial Services. The BBB of Central Florida recorded 44 complaints since January 2008. Indeed, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum filed a lawsuit against the company in October 2008, and against the company principals. The charge: making misleading promises regarding credit card rate reduction services.
‘‘We began investigating IXE Accelerated Financial Center after receiving a continuous flow of consumer complaints against the company,’’ spokeswoman Ryan Wiggins said.
The Florida case is still pending.
Wiggins said the AG’s office received complaints from residents of Florida and at least 23 other states, including New Jersey. But IXE isn’t on the radar of New Jersey law enforcement officials — at least not yet.
Those who have had bad experiences with the companies should file a complaint, said state Consumer Affairs spokesman Jeff Lamm. (You can file online complaints with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs at njconsumeraffairs.gov.)
If this company is being investigated, at least in Florida, and it’s apparently not kosher, we wondered what kind of evidence it presented to Capital One to show Trematore approved the second $895 charge. Capital One couldn’t say.
‘‘We’re bound by the disputes process and guidelines as established by Visa/MasterCard, which indicated that the customer did authorize the merchant to bill her credit card,’’ said company spokeswoman Pam Girardo. ‘‘However, we’ve credited Ms. Trematore’s account with $895 as a goodwill gesture.’’
Thank you, Capital One. But that’s not completely satisfying. The $895 isn’t a refund from the debt relief company. It’s out of Capital One’s pocket. Because the debt firm gave some kind of “proof” that Trematore approved the charge, Capital One is bound to accept the charge.
Girardo couldn’t speak specifically about the allegations against the debt relief firms, but the refund makes it seem as if the credit card company has its own doubts about the debt firms’ authenticity.
Pat Trematore was surprised to hear Capital One would refund the second $895 charge.
‘‘Are you kidding? It’s like I won the lottery or something. That’s $895 plus interest that I don’t have to pay to the credit card company,’’ she said.
She also vows never to answer the phone if her Caller ID doesn’t identify a caller she knows.
If you want to lower the interest rates on your credit cards, there’s no need to hire an overpriced and questionable firm. Do it yourself.
Start by asking the representative to lower your interest rate. If you’ve been a solid customer, say so. If you’ve had some payment blips, own up to them, but explain how a lower rate will help you meet your obligations. Use the same methods to ask your card company to lift late fees or annual fees.
They may say yes. They may say no. If the answer is no, ask to speak to a manager, who may be authorized to offer a different deal.
If that’s not enough and you need professional help, don’t turn to one of those debt relief companies you hear about on the radio. Find someone reputable. Contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at debtadvice.org or call (800) 388-2227 to find a counselor near you.