Darlene Clements of Bloomfield is learning that the hard way.
She said she was living paycheck-to-paycheck when a friend told her about a debt management company in Maplewood called TGC Movement.
Clements met with TGC on Aug. 27, and the rep promised to reduce her debts by 35 percent.
“[The rep] informed me how the 35 percent discount is paid by government and private organizations,” Clements said.
Clements considered the offer, even though TGC would charge 8 percent for “overhead charges.”
She checked out the company’s web site — tgcmovement.com — and she was sold.
TGC asked for a $562.20 money order, saying it would apply that amount to her debts.
She handed over the money order on Aug. 30, and the rep explained that it would take 12 business days for her debtors to be paid.
So she waited.
On Sept. 16, Clements said, she checked with her creditors to make the sure the payments went through.
She said she checked again the next day, but no payments were made on her accounts.
She called TGC.
“I spoke to [the rep] who stated that he has to check with the manager, Mr. Theodore, and will call me back,” she said. “Of course, I did not receive a return call.”
The following day, Clements called and spoke to another rep, who told her to come to the office to fill out an insurance form.
When Clements arrived, she tried to get answers.
“I asked where was the manager, Mr. Theodore, and they told me that he was incarcerated for parking tickets and he should be out later that evening,” Clements said.
That’s when she met some other TGC customers who had the same experience as Clements. They said they gave the company money to pay their bills, but none of their creditors received any payments from TGC.
She said she knew something wasn’t right, but she filled out the insurance form and left.
When Clements called the next day, she was told “Mr. Theodore” was still in jail.
She asked for someone, anyone, to call her back. No one did.
“Our money is just gone,” Clements said.
Later that day, she filed a complaint with Consumer Affairs and called The Star-Ledger.
THE PROPRIETOR’S SHADY RECORD
We took a closer look at the program offered by TGC Movements and its “manager,” Mr. Theodore.
Exactly how this purported debt management plan works isn’t clear.
You see, debt management programs and credit counseling services generally offer to negotiate with a customer’s creditors, sometimes lowering the total amount owed or lowering or freezing interest rates. TGC makes no such promises.
Instead, the company web site offers several programs, including those targeted at paying off loans, rent, utilities and other debts. As best we could translate, it seems to offer customers so-called certificates that they buy at a 35 percent discount, and these certificates are used to pay their bills.
“For example, you purchase a $1,000.00 Help Me Pay My Utilities Discount Gift Certificate at the discount rate of $650.00 plus a surcharge of 8% with a maturity term of 36-months; each month for 36-months the Help Me Pay My Utilities Discount Gift Certificate will discount the certificate holder 35.00% on the total payment transaction, payable to your registered creditor(s) or to the registered payee on your behalf each month for a period of 36-months; said certificate holders are required to make a prepayment in the sum of $650.00 on every $1,000.00 of certificate purchase; said payment must be made not later than 7-days prior to the date which payment is required,” the web site said.
The site also offers testimonials from happy customers who said the company reduced their bills by 35 percent.
But this wasn’t through negotiating with creditors. TGC claimed to Clements and other customers Bamboozled talked to that 35 percent of the debts were paid through a combination government funding and private investments.
The only explanation on the web site said: “The Funds are created by Mr. Theodore with an alliance of a network of thousands of investors, with a yearly budget of $10 billion dollars of payment to make to targeted areas.”
Ten billion dollars? That’s a pretty solid business for a man who only got out of jail in January 2013, and a company that’s only been registered with the state since June.
Public records show Germaine Theodore spent seven years and 15 days behind bars for a host of offenses, including passing bad checks, theft by deception, identity theft, sale of a false driver’s license, forgery and weapons charges.
Press reports at the time said Theodore admitted to almost $100,000 worth of fraud and using the internet to steal personal information from unsuspecting victims.
Theodore also has 17 judgments and tax liens against him, including several by the Office of the Public Defender, records show.
And yes, Theodore is back in custody, but not only for parking tickets. On Thursday, he was arrested at the TGC offices on old warrants for receiving stolen property and resisting arrest — warrants dating back to before his long prison term.
Maplewood police said it learned about Theodore after a flurry of visits to TGC’s offices since Sept. 11, the date police received the first of several customer complaints that the company took money from customers to pay bills, but never made the payments.
The responding officers found Theodore had not only the outstanding warrants for which he was taken into custody, but other old ones, too, police said. There was one in Englewood for deceptive business practices, and six others for traffic-related violations, all in different jurisdictions.
Two days after the arrest, Maplewood police said they returned to TGC once again, but this time with investigators from the Attorney General’s office.
“They served paperwork to that location,” Maplewood police said. “They were looking for Germaine.”
Late Friday, Maplewood said there was an active investigation into the matter, and it had taken another 10 new reports from unhappy TGC customers that day alone.
It also asked Bamboozled to tell anyone with a complaint to contact Maplewood police, which will coordinate its efforts with other authorities.
We didn’t try to reach Theodore, given that authorities said he was in jail, but we checked with the state to learn more about its visit to TGC.
“We cannot comment about any investigation, or even confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” said Eric Kanefsky, director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “We can confirm that the Division of Consumer Affairs has received complaints from 20 consumers about TGC Movement, and that we investigate all credible allegations of fraudulent business activity.”
We also took a look at the insurance form customers were told to complete.
The insurance policy in question was a general liability policy taken by Triny’s General Contractors, a company owned by Theodore before his time in prison.
The insurance agent who wrote the policy described it as one that would cover the construction company’s work in customer homes.
That doesn’t sound like it would cover the kind of business TGC is in, and generally, such policies do not cover alleged fraud.
FINDING LEGIT HELP WITH DEBT
When it comes to debt paydown, there is no free lunch.
There are legitimate programs that will help lower what you owe, but they work with your creditors to essentially write off some of your debt and lower your interest rates.
If you need help, contact an accredited nonprofit credit counseling service that provides free or low-cost assistance. You can find one through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).
Another option is to negotiate with your creditors on your own.
While customers of TGC wait to see if they can get their money back, they should take steps to protect their identities. They had shared lots of personal information, including account numbers and Social Security numbers, with the company.
They should ask the credit bureaus for a “security freeze,” a free service that would stop new creditors from having access to their credit file without specific permission from the customer.
They should also let their credit cards and other lenders know what’s happening, and request new account numbers — just in case.
If consumers wish to file a complaint they can call the Division of Consumer Affairs at 800-242-5846 (toll-free within N.J.) or 877-746-7850.
We’ll let you know what happens.