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Highlights

As consumer debt has risen to historic levels, a growing number of for-profit debt settlement companies have emerged. These companies say they will negotiate with consumers' creditors to accept a lump sum settlement for 40 to 60 cents on the dollar for amounts owed on credit cards and other unsecured debt. However, there have been allegations that some debt settlement companies engage in fraudulent, abusive, or deceptive practices that leave consumers in worse financial condition. For example, it has been alleged that they commonly charge fees in advance of settling debts or without providing any services at all, a practice on which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced a proposed ban due to its harm to consumers. The Committee asked for an investigation of these issues. As a result, GAO attempted to (1) determine through covert testing whether these allegations are accurate; and, if so, (2) determine whether they are widespread, citing specific closed cases. To achieve these objectives, GAO conducted covert testing by calling 20 companies while posing as fictitious consumers; made overt, unannounced site visits to several companies called; interviewed industry stakeholders; and reviewed information on federal and state legal actions. GAO did not use the services of the companies it called or attempt to verify the facts regarding all of the allegations it found.

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