The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today took action against a ring of law firms and attorneys who collaborated to charge illegal fees to consumers seeking debt relief. In a complaint filed in federal court, the CFPB alleges that Howard Law, P.C., the Williamson Law Firm, LLC, and Williamson & Howard, LLP, as well as attorneys Vincent Howard and Lawrence Williamson, ran this debt relief operation along with Morgan Drexen, Inc., which shut down in 2015 following the CFPB’s lawsuit against that company. The CFPB seeks to stop the defendants’ unlawful scheme, obtain relief for harmed consumers, and impose penalties.
“The defendants exploited consumers who were already suffering financial difficulties by tricking them into paying steep, illegal fees,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We put a stop to this scam once already, and we intend to do it again.”
Howard Law and Williamson & Howard are law firms based in Orange County, Calif. The Williamson Law Firm is registered in Kansas. Vincent Howard is the president of Howard Law, and Lawrence Williamson heads the Williamson Law Firm. Both are part owners of Williamson & Howard. These firms and lawyers offer debt relief services to consumers nationwide.
The Telemarketing Sales Rule generally prohibits debt relief providers from charging a fee until they have actually settled, reduced, or changed the terms of at least one of the consumer’s debts. It also limits the types of fees a debt relief provider can charge for already settled debts. Under this rule, consumers facing financial difficulties should not pay any fees for debt relief until they receive the services they signed up for.
The CFPB’s complaint alleges that the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule by collecting illegal fees and deceiving consumers about being charged upfront fees. Consumers seeking debt relief help from the attorneys in this case were given two contracts, one for debt settlement services and the other for bankruptcy-related services. The CFPB alleges that consumers who signed up sought services only for debt relief and not bankruptcy. The contract given to consumers related to bankruptcy was a ruse to disguise illegal upfront fees. The CFPB alleges that the attorneys collected tens of millions of dollars in unlawful fees this way from consumers, and often failed to settle any debts.
The defendants also assisted illegal debt relief practices by Morgan Drexen, Inc. and its president and chief executive officer, Walter Ledda. In 2015, the CFPB secured a judgment against Ledda for participating in the unlawful debt relief operation. In 2016, the CFPB secured a judgment against Morgan Drexen for the same conduct. The attorneys named in today’s case had worked alongside Morgan Drexen and Ledda to collect illegal fees, and then took over the operation after the CFPB halted Morgan Drexen’s and Ledda’s illegal activities.
The CFPB’s complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendants have actually violated the law.
You can read the complaint online.
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This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt Guy and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.