WASHINGTON — With foreclosures, short sales and credit-card defaults at record levels, an aggressive breed of firms has sprung up offering to power-wash consumers' damaged credit files and boost credit scores — thereby eliminating records of bankruptcies and mortgage delinquencies, even when the information is accurate.
Such services — promoted widely on the Internet and in radio ads — are especially attractive to people who want to buy a house but whose credit scores are too low for a mortgage through FHA, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.
The problem with these companies, say federal and state authorities, is that their promises may be deceptive and illegal. On Oct. 23, the Federal Trade Commission and 24 state agencies announced the kickoff of "Operation Clean Sweep," targeting credit fix-up operations nationwide that allegedly take consumers' money in exchange for boosts in credit scores that they cannot deliver.
In the first phase of the campaign, the FTC filed suits against seven companies, alleging multiple violations of the Credit Repair Organizations Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act. Under the credit repair law, organizations or individuals cannot collect fees up front from customers before rendering services to amend their credit bureau files. That law also prohibits companies from promising improvements that are not feasible, such as elimination of accurate records on foreclosures and bankruptcies that typically remain on national bureau files for seven to 10 years.
The FTC said the new legal actions were prompted by the receipt of more than 4,400 consumer complaints against firms in 22 states. Working with state agencies and information from local Better Business Bureaus, the commission investigated credit repair companies' Internet pitches and other advertising media, and sometimes had investigators pose as potential clients to document allegedly illegal pitches.
In one case involving a company in North Miami Beach, Clean Credit Report Services Inc., the commission says radio advertisements promised that "the negative marks that appear on your credit report can be removed . . . legally! Things like late payments, collection accounts, charge-offs, repossessions, bankruptcy and identity theft. Clean Credit Report Services will remove all the negative remarks . . . in as little as three months."
The FTC's suit against the company also quoted a sales representative as promising that within "45 days to four months," the firm would find "the best solution to get those (negative) things deleted for you so that your credit score can increase. We want to get your scores at least between the 650 to the 700 . . . mark, but we have had clients (increase) even higher than that."
The FTC suit says customers typically sign a contract for services and must "pay an advance fee of approximately $400" before proceeding. Asked for comment on the suit, Daniel Miranda, a co-owner of Clean Credit, said the FTC's action "is completely unmerited." The firm does not promise to remove accurate derogatory information from credit files, he said, and does not collect fees for credit repair in advance.
Instead, he said, "every customer is offered a product" — a compact disc and a book that provide instructions on how consumers can improve their credit files on their own. The cost of the CD and book, according to the company's Web site, is $399.95 plus $9.95 shipping and handling. Money collected from customers up front "is for the product (CD and book)," said Miranda, and the firm performs a "voice-recorded verification" that consumers understand "they are paying for the product."
Consumers who wish to proceed with credit file repair services join a "club" with no cost for the first two months, and $12.95 per additional month. Asked whether paying more than $400 is a reasonable charge for a book and a CD, Miranda said "the value of that product is far beyond" what the company charges.
The FTC's suit alleges that once clients have paid the $400 in advance, Clean Credit does "little, if anything, to fulfill the promises made to consumers." When unhappy customers complain, according to the FTC, they are "sometimes hung up on, put on hold, or ignored."
In an interview, Miranda denied those allegations and said the company has assisted more than 75,000 clients, of whom approximately 150 have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau.
Resolution of the Clean Credit case and the others in Operation Clean Sweep will be up to federal courts in the coming months. But the takeaway for homebuyers and others seeking to rapidly boost their credit scores is this: Whatever sales people may tell you, it is impossible legally to remove a valid record of a severe default, bankruptcy or foreclosure from your files. On the other hand, it may be possible to remove inaccurate or outdated records.
Finally, if anyone requires money up front, walk away. It's against federal law.
Kenneth Harney can be reached at email@example.com.