Conniving Credit Counselors

identity theft credit card theft fraud
CBS/AP
All Rick Moravec wanted was to buy his first home. But when he applied for a mortgage, the bank recommended that he improve his credit by consolidating his debt. At the suggestion of the loan officer, he says he called credit counseling company Ameridebt.

As CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports, Ameridebt told Moravec they would make his payments smaller.

"We're gonna cut these payment in half for you, Rick, no problems. If you just give us $450 a month, we're gonna pay a little bit on each one, we're gonna consolidate everything for you, I said, 'Oh that sounds good,'" says Moravec.

It sounded so good, that he signed on and began sending Ameridebt monthly payments. He assumed his bills were being paid, until his creditors began calling, unhappy with the payments under the new plan.

"I don't understand why people were calling me up on my job and my house," says Moravec.

He was even more surprised when he learned that instead of going to his creditors, his first monthly check was pocketed by Ameridebt.

The Better Business Bureau has received hundreds of complaints about the company, and the Attorney General in Illinois recently sued Ameridebt for violating the state's consumer fraud law. In her words, too many people who are drowning in debt are caught up in an undertow of hidden fees and failed promises.

"We want to make sure people aren't getting ripped off," says Lisa Madigan, the Illinois Attorney General.

"People don't believe that they'll be paying exorbitant fees. They think they're out there trying to do good work when they're really out there trying to earn a profit," she says.

Profit's an issue because like the vast majority of credit counseling companies Ameridebt claims "non-profit status". In fact, they called Rick's first $450 payment a "charitable donation", one they say they take from every client unless the client says no.

Critics point to Ameridebt's reported $10 million ad campaign as proof that they're in it for the money and according to the Illinois law suit, the company funnels the debt-management money into a for-profit sister company.

Ameridebt declined an interview, but in a statement the company says they are legitimately non-profit, all fees are voluntary and more than 99 percent of customers are satisfied with the service.

"It just tore me apart," says Moravec.

Rick Moravec is one of the dissatisfied. He finally did get his home, but only after he found another credit counselor to dig him out of debt. Now he's fixing up the house, but his credit is ruined he says, by a company he went to for help.