By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director, Northeast Contact
Here’s a short, sad story of a consumer from southern Maine who ran up more than a quarter million dollars in debt on 10 credit cards.
He hoped for a happy ending when he hired a debt settlement company called Legal Helpers Debt Resolution LLC. He paid the firm an upfront fee and monthly payments, believing its claim that it was effective in “helping consumers resolve their debt problems.”
Legal Helpers website trumpets that it is “the nation’s largest debt resolution law firm” with “offices in 50 states.” When Eric Wright went looking, he found an office in Thomaston but had a lot of trouble finding the attorney who was supposed to be there.
Wright is staff attorney for Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. He was looking for the attorney on behalf of our southern Maine consumer, who was less than pleased with the iceberg-like progress Legal Helpers seemed to be making.
Wright investigated complaints from about two dozen Mainers, most of whom had dropped their business dealings with Legal Helpers.
“They didn’t appear to have done anything,” Wright told me last week. “There never seemed to be a method to the madness of what they were doing” in terms of getting clients’ debts reduced.
As other Mainers complained, Wright advised them to cease doing business with Legal Helpers. To that firm — and apparently a number of others in what Wright terms an “awful industry” — doing business means keeping a large chunk of clients’ money and putting some in accounts to be used for debt settlement. Problem was, Wright said, it might take two or three years to get enough money in those accounts to make debt settlement a reality.
By then, creditors got tired of waiting, and so did many of Legal Helpers’ estimated 15,000 to 20,000 clients nationwide. The firm did negotiate deals on two of our consumer’s accounts, which he paid off at 35 cents on the dollar. He did almost as well on his own, negotiating a rate of 45 cents on seven other accounts.
There was also the matter of registering to operate in Maine, which the company refused to do even though Maine law requires registration by debt settlement companies. Attorneys are exempt, unless those attorneys’ sole activity is settling debts. Legal Helpers claimed it had “partnerships” with attorneys who were licensed in Maine, and so should be exempt.
Wright turned the whole matter over to Maine’s attorney general, William Schneider. Last week, Schneider and Will Lund, superintendent of the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, announced a settlement with Legal Helpers and with The Mortgage Law Group LLP, a sister company of Legal Helpers that claimed to have a national reputation for representing homeowners in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure.
Under the agreement, the firms will pay $250,000 to be equitably distributed among more than 300 Maine consumers. The companies also agreed to stop charging monthly fees to present clients and will pay the state $15,000 to cover part of its administrative and investigative costs.
“These settlements send a strong message to others in the debt relief business that the state of Maine will not tolerate those who take advantage of Maine consumers in financial distress,” Schneider said in a news release.
In July, the state of Illinois reached a $2.1 million settlement with Legal Helpers.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.