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FTC targets credit repair firms

As part of a nationwide crackdown, the agency sues a Woodland Hills firm that it accuses of violating federal law.

October 24, 2008|David Colker | Colker is a Times staff writer.

In a nationwide crackdown on credit repair companies, the Federal Trade Commission said Thursday that 30 firms were being targeted, including a Woodland Hills company that had its assets frozen.

Success Credit Services was accused in an FTC civil suit of violating the Credit Repair Organizations Act by contending that it could quickly clean up credit reports by removing legitimate negative items, such as late payments, bankruptcies and tax liens.

The widely advertised company, headed by Tracy Ballard-Straughn, also was accused of allegedly collecting thousands of dollars of upfront fees -- also a violation of the credit act -- and then doing little or nothing in return. U.S. District Court in Los Angeles has granted the FTC's request for a temporary restraining order and asset freeze for the company and Ballard-Straughn.

Ballard-Straughn couldn't be reached Thursday. Her lawyer didn't respond to a request for comment.

The FTC said six other California-based credit repair companies were under investigation by the California attorney general's office. No action has been taken against them.

But Assistant Atty. Gen. Albert Shelden said the state probably would bring some charges in the next few months, apart from the FTC action.

"We've had more inquiries and complaints in the last few months about credit repair than we have in a long time," Shelden said. He attributed it to the banking crisis, which has driven more consumers toward credit repair advertisements that pop up online.

"I think people are having a hard time getting credit now and are more concerned about their credit scores," Shelden said.

One of the companies under investigation by the state is Financial Link Services in San Diego. The operational supervisor of the company, Eric Phillips, said he met once with officials from the attorney general's office several months ago.

Phillips, whose wife, Sandra, is the owner of the company, said that Financial Link Services was "not at all" guilty of any wrongdoing and that it operated by the book. That includes giving clients written contracts and not charging fees until legal steps are taken to try to resolve a credit problem, he said.

Friction arises when clients have an unrealistic view of what can be done by a company following the law, Phillips said.

"The complaints are just horrible," he said. "This is not a business for the faint of heart."

The director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, Lydia Parnes, said the agency found that credit repair agencies often promise more than they can deliver and collect upfront fees for the empty promises.

When a company "claims that bad credit and no credit are no problems, they're just not telling you the truth," Parnes said.

Actual mistakes on credit reports can often be successfully challenged by the consumer without the intervention of a company.

But legitimate dings -- whether late payments, nonpayments or bankruptcies -- are likely to remain on credit reports until they time out after several years.

"We would like to remind consumers there is no magic bullet to raise the credit scores," Parnes said.

Also Thursday, the FTC declined to confirm a report in the Wall Street Journal that the agency was investigating allegations of price fixing in the musical instrument business.

But the largest trade association in the field, NAMM, said it was contacted last year by the FTC on the topic. NAMM representatives would not comment further.

The article named Guitar Center Inc., which has stores across the country and is headquartered in Westlake Village, as one of the companies that was subpoenaed in the investigation. Guitar Center executives didn't return phone calls requesting comment.

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david.colker@latimes.com

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