The US Department of Justice has sued debt settlement firms like BlueBay, a subsidiary of BlueBay Capital Group and several of its affiliates, over allegations that the companies used a deceptive and misleading strategy to entice Americans to sign up for debt reliefs.
The suit filed Thursday in US District Court in Manhattan is the latest chapter in a lengthy battle over the tactics of debt settlement businesses, which often try to make consumers feel good by offering to pay off debts as a way to earn income.
The lawsuits are part of a broader lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission against debt settlement agencies.
The suits come as the US government struggles to rein in the ballooning debt burden and as lawmakers grapple with the fallout of the debt crisis, and the need to make sure debt relief isn’t abused by unscrupulous companies.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday, claims that BlueBay misrepresented its services, such as the ability to cancel debts, and used the term “debt relief” to describe them.
“In order to be able to use the word ‘debt,’ BlueBay must have the right to charge the consumers who make up a debt relief program a fee, and BlueBay will not charge consumers for the service they receive,” said the suit, which was filed by the FTC and its Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“BlueBay has engaged in misleading and deceptive business practices and deceptive advertising, which are likely to cause consumers to believe that they are receiving debt relief.”
The complaint says BlueBay and other debt relief firms made false and misleading statements about their ability to issue and collect debt relief.
For example, the lawsuit alleges, BlueBay’s debt relief companies told consumers that they would be able issue and/or collect debt at a discount, if the consumer paid down their debt within 30 days of receiving the offer.
But the lawsuit says the “deliberate deception” would only apply if the debt was outstanding.
The debt relief business model has been a headache for the government, which has tried to rein it in in several ways.
In April, the Treasury Department announced new rules that limit the debt relief industry, including a requirement that companies not sell debt relief services at a discounted rate.
The move came after a series of lawsuits by consumer advocates and the Federal Reserve, including one filed by Consumers Union and the National Consumer Law Center.
That complaint alleged that Bluebay’s business model was deceptive and that the company was able to offer a discount on debt relief, even though consumers did not know they were signing up for a debt reduction program.
BlueBay was among the companies that responded to the new rules.
In May, the Justice Department sued BlueBay for defrauding consumers by misleading them about the terms and conditions of their debt relief agreements, which it alleged failed to include specific disclosures about the debt reduction offer and that misrepresented the type of services BlueBay offered.
A statement from the Justice Dept. said it would “continue to vigorously defend the FTC’s complaint.”
The Justice Department also charged BlueBay with violating federal laws by misleading consumers about the ability of the company to issue debt relief through the debt forgiveness program, and for violating the FTC rules by failing to disclose certain information about debt relief programs to consumers.
The DOJ said BlueBay “engaged in deceptive business conduct in a manner that was likely to produce false impressions of the amount of revenue the debt payment agency would receive.”
BlueBay did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bluebay has been under scrutiny in recent months after the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Consumer Financial Safety Commission and other regulators began to investigate whether the company had overcharged consumers for debt cancellation services.
The companies that are the targets of the lawsuits were not identified in the complaint.