Attorney General Gansler Reaches Settlement with
Agreement Resolves Investigation Over Sale of Unlicensed
Debt Management Services
MD ( Nov. 4, 2010) - Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler announced today that his Consumer Protection Division has resolved a multi-state investigation that included 19 additional states and the District of Columbia, concerning the unlicensed sale of debt management services by a Columbia, Maryland based debt management services provider. A consent judgment was filed today in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City reflecting the settlement reached by the Consumer Protection Division with AscendOne Corporation, and its wholly-owned subsidiaries Amerix Corporation, CareOne Services, Inc., FreedomPoint Financial Corporation, and 3C, Inc. (referred to collectively as “AscendOne”), as well as Bernaldo Dancel, the owner of the companies.
Debt management services entail a credit counseling agency receiving monthly payments from consumers for the purpose of distributing the funds to consumers' creditors at a monthly rate negotiated by the credit counseling agency through what is known as a debt management plan. In Maryland, businesses that offer, sell and/or perform debt management services must be licensed by the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation before they may offer the services to consumers.
In a complaint that was also filed today in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, the Attorneys General alleged that AscendOne, working with a large number of non-profit credit counseling agencies, offered, sold and performed debt management services without first obtaining the required license. Since the investigation commenced, CareOne Services, Inc. became licensed in Maryland to offer, sell and perform debt management services. The Attorneys General further alleged that AscendOne misled consumers by representing that the debt management services it offered would be performed by a non-profit credit counseling agency when, in fact, AscendOne performed the services. Additionally, they alleged that AscendOne represented to consumers that they would receive credit counseling when, in fact, many consumers had little or no contact with a credit counselor. The Attorneys General also alleged that some of the consumers that AscendOne enrolled into debt management plans did not benefit from the plans. The companies and their owner denied that they violated any laws, but agreed to the relief provided in the consent order filed in Court today.
“Consumers who are struggling with debt need to receive meaningful counseling services and not be sold other services that provide no relief or assistance,” said Attorney General Gansler. “Consumers should only seek advice concerning their debts from licensed credit counseling agencies with good reputations.”
The consent order filed by the Attorney General prohibits AscendOne and its owner from offering, selling or performing debt management services unless they comply with all state law requirements, including maintaining the required license. The consent order further prohibits AscendOne and Dancel from misrepresenting that their services were being performed by a non-profit, the purpose of the fees they charged, and/or the impact entering into a debt management plan could have on a consumer's credit history. The consent order also provides that AscendOne and Dancel may not enroll consumers into debt management plans unless they first determine that the consumer can afford the plan and provide the consumer with meaningful credit counseling. Under the consent order, AscendOne and Dancel must also pay $4.5 million to the Attorneys General.
The investigation was led by Attorney General Gansler's Consumer Protection Division. The Attorneys General of Arkansas, Arizona, California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and West Virginia also participated in the settlement.
For consumers who are seeking credit counseling or are considering signing up for a debt management plan, the Attorney General offered the following advice:
- Check for a license. Companies that offer debt management services must be licensed with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. To find out whether a company is licensed, call the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation at (410) 230-6100.
- Watch out for excessive fees. Maryland law limits the amounts a credit counseling agency may charge for debt management services to a one-time consultation fee not to exceed $50 and a monthly service fee of $8.00 for each creditor included in the debt management plan, but not to exceed $40.
- Check out the reputation of the company. Call the Maryland Attorney General's Office at (888) 743-0023 and the Better Business Bureau to find out if consumers have filed complaints against the company. Try calling the credit counseling agency before enrolling to see whether it will be difficult to reach a credit counselor.
- Find out if your creditors will deal with the company. Not all creditors will agree to work with a credit counseling agency, particularly secured creditors and those whose debts are not dischargeable in bankruptcy (e.g., home mortgages, car loans, student loans).
- Determine if a debt management plan is right for you. Make sure your counselor goes over your income and debts thoroughly to determine if you can afford the monthly payments and it is the right choice for you.
- Read your plan agreement carefully before signing. Make sure there are no hidden fees and that you understand all of its terms.
- Follow up with your creditors and make sure they are being paid. Being in a debt management plan does not relieve you of the responsibility to make sure your creditors are being paid on time. Some consumers complain that they made their monthly payments to their credit counseling agency on time, but the agency is making late payments to consumers' creditors. Ask the credit counseling agency if it will provide you with a monthly report showing payments to your creditors, and follow up with your creditors to make sure they have received payments.
- Know that participation in a debt management plan may be reflected in your credit file, and it will not erase your prior credit problems. Ultimately, paying off your debts may improve your credit history. However, your creditors may make a negative comment on your credit record if you participate in a debt management plan, which may make it more difficult to get credit while you are enrolled in a debt management plan. Be wary of any credit counseling agency that promises to remove negative information from your credit record that is accurate.