Whistleblower: More scrutiny for lawyer-run credit-repair firms

  • Article by: ALEJANDRA MATOS
  • Updated: March 17, 2014 - 9:44 AM

In December, Ron Stevens of Tower, Minn., agreed to pay a New Hampshire company to boost his credit score. Three months and $280 later, Stevens said, nothing had changed.

If the company was not owned by a lawyer, Stevens could have sought help from the Minnesota Commerce Department. But state law does not allow the agency to regulate credit-repair companies run by attorneys.

While the company offered to refund Stevens’ money after being contacted by Whistleblower, the Commerce Department warns consumers to be cautious when hiring a credit-counseling company, even if it’s backed by an attorney. Meanwhile, the department has persuaded the Legislature to give it more authority to regulate other financial services offered by attorneys.

This patchwork of regulations is becoming increasingly apparent as the state struggles to regulate the growing industry devoted to improving consumers’ creditworthiness.

In September, Legal Helpers Debt Resolution, based in Illinois, fought a cease-and-desist order from the Commerce Department by arguing that the department has no authority over debt settlement companies owned by attorneys. They argued that lawyers are already regulated by the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.

Even though an administrative law judge sided with the state, a new law sponsored by state Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, explicitly gave the Commerce Department regulatory power over attorneys who exclusively do debt settlement. Last week, lawmakers introduced a Commerce-backed bill that would give the department regulatory power over attorneys who do debt collection.

“We felt, based on our past history with companies, that it was important for us to draw this distinction,” said Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman. “If you are primarily doing debt collection work, then you ought to be regulated as a debt collector.”

But the Commerce Department currently cannot regulate licensed attorneys who conduct credit repair or credit counseling. Credit repair companies often claim they can help consumers fix credit errors or promise to dispute the accuracy of information reported by the three major credit bureaus.

The company hired by Stevens, National Legal Center, employs nearly 50 people across the country, said David Gelinas, a firm administrator with the company.

While the company offers to fix credit errors, Gelinas said it’s different from credit-repair companies because the letters it sends to credit bureaus are signed by attorneys and feature the National Legal Center letterhead.

The letters sent by most credit-repair companies only include the consumer’s name, Gelinas said. “You can’t even compare us with what’s out there,” he said.

Gelinas said the company’s efforts would have paid off for Stevens had he given it more time.

Gelinas said he sees no need for more regulation of his industry, and disagrees with Attorney General Lori Swanson’s advice that consumers avoid paying firms to fix credit errors.

“You can represent yourself in court, but you don’t see them saying to do that yourself,” he said.

Rothman said consumers should cautious even if a company is backed by an attorney.

“Be aware of unrealistic promises,” Rothman said. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

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