This is the fifth in a series of posts discussing the most common myths about do-it-yourself debt settlement. As consumers shop for a debt relief solution and talk with the sales reps at various debt settlement firms, one of the first questions they will usually ask is, “What about creditor lawsuits? Won’t they just sue me to recover what I owe?”
There’s no question that taking the path of private debt negotiation carries some risk of legal action. In general, the longer you take to settle your delinquent accounts, the greater the risk being sued meanwhile. (This is a key reason why we always encourage our clients to negotiate all their settlements as quickly as possible.)
However, the responses you get will vary depending on how ethical the company is in terms of key disclosures. Sales reps for debt settlement firms are always trying to find creative ways to deal with this key objection, so they can “close the sale.” Before the FTC stepped in and amended the Telemarketing Sales Rule to restrict debt settlement companies from misrepresenting their services, we used to hear a lot of outright falsehoods, such as, “They can’t sue you while you’re in our program,” or, “Don’t worry, we won’t let that happen to you.”
[NOTE: For the purpose of this article, I am ignoring the so-called “attorney model” debt settlement firms, where supposedly an attorney is assigned to monitor your file and help with any legal situations. I will discuss attorney-based companies separately in a later post in this series.]
Nowadays, after the rule change and a series of enforcement actions, we hear less of this blatant lying than before. However, sales reps working for traditional debt settlement companies still tend to downplay the risk of legal action. Further, many of the companies that generate “leads” for the debt settlement industry use mailers or online ads that give the impression that consumers are “applying” for enrollment in a formal program, either a government sponsored program or one the banks fully recognize.
Without actually saying so in plain English, these companies are trying to create the impression that a consumer who enrolls with their program will somehow be protected from aggressive collection practices. Yet time and time again, we hear consumer complaints along these lines: “I signed up with this company to settle my debts for me. One of my creditors sued and they did nothing about it. Now I have a judgment against me and had to file bankruptcy anyway, but the debt company refused to refund my money.”
There are two reasons why consumers frequently get sued by their creditors even when enrolled in a traditional debt settlement program. First, as I discussed in the previous post in this series, the banks do not actually recognize the need for third-party debt settlement. We have testimony to that effect by bank representatives during the FTC hearings on the industry. So there is no formal enrollment taking place, and therefore no procedure that will cause the bank to suspend its normal collection activity, which may include litigation.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, involvement with a debt settlement company can actually INCREASE the risk for legal action. I refer to this as the “footprint” problem of debt settlement. A negotiator cannot talk to your creditors on your behalf unless you first grant them a Power-of-Attorney. Yet once that Power-of-Attorney is received by the creditor, the account is flagged as a third-party settlement account, and the normal collection process is short-circuited. Rather than helping, the negotiator’s involvement actually hurts the consumer by accelerating the placement of their accounts to legal status, when otherwise it might have not happened (or taken much longer to develop).
Myth busted. As demonstrated by numerous complaints filed by consumers, as well as many enforcement actions by the FTC and Attorneys General for various states, enrollment in a debt settlement program does NOTHING to decrease the risk of litigation faced by consumers who are delinquent on their credit card debts. In fact, due to the “footprint” problem of debt settlement, the involvement of a debt settlement firm may actually INCREASE the risk of lawsuits and also accelerate the timeframe in which they occur.