No doubt, it's tempting to sign up for a "quick fix" to clean up your credit. Who wouldn't want to instantly find a way to add 100 or more points to a credit score to qualify for a rewards-packed credit card? Or maybe, finally, qualify for a great deal on a car loan?
But the Federal Trade Commission and others are warning that any company that charges money in advance for credit repair is going against the law.
The federal Credit Repair Organizations Act, which was enacted in 1996, makes it illegal for credit repair companies to lie about what they can do to clear up a clouded credit report, or charge upfront fees before they do the job they promised to do.
Things can go really bad when consumers latch onto ridiculous claims — such as that somehow you can piggyback on a stranger's good credit to shore up your credit history.
Yes, there are even a string of YouTube videos to convince you this is brilliant idea.
Some outfits have said things like: "From 620 to 780+ in 3 Weeks? Yes!"
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The Federal Trade Commission took action in late June to stop an operator called Grand Teton Professionals that pitched fake credit repair services via various websites, including DeletionExpert.com, InquiryBusters.com, and TopTradelines.com.
The FTC complaint alleges the defendants bilked consumers out of $6.2 million.
Since at least 2014, the FTC claimed, the company and its websites operated an unlawful credit repair scam that deceived consumers across the country.
Don't bet negative marks will disappear
The egregious claims included falsely promising that they they could remove negative marks on a consumer's credit report as well as extracting thousands of dollars in illegal advance fees, according to Gregory Ashe, senior staff attorney for the FTC in Washington, D.C.
Negative marks could be removed in the case of ID theft, he said, such as if someone opened a credit card using your Social Security number. But otherwise, a credit repair outfit cannot remove legitimate negative remarks. Various negative marks, such as a car repossession, would last seven years on your report and then fall off.
You can, of course, dispute any errors on your own.
In addition, the websites actually went as far as including terms that would prohibit a consumer from making disparaging comments online about the companies. Somehow the consumer could face a $25,000 charge for making negative remarks.
Really? The threat alone, though, meant some consumers wouldn't take a chance saying a negative word, according to regulators.
"It's enough to chill a consumer who believes it means what it says," Ashe said.
As a result, many consumers said they couldn't find complaints online about the credit repair sites so they thought it was OK to send thousands of dollars, Ashe said.
Some consumers, though, did reach out and complain to the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission and their state Attorney General. Such data is gathered and monitored by the Consumer Sentinel Network, an online investigative tool of the FTC. And those complaints helped the FTC in its case.
Ashe said the hope is that others engaging in wrongful practices will take notice of the action against Grand Teton Professionals. (No one answered calls to the company last week. Only recorded music played on the line.)
In Michigan, the Attorney General's Office has received 13 complaints relating to credit counseling and credit repair issues in the last calendar year.
Consumers are warned to stay away from a company that promises that "it can get rid of most or all negative credit information in your credit report, even if the information is accurate and current," according to the Michigan Department of the Attorney General's alert on credit repair scams on its site at www.michigan.gov/ag.
Consumers paid thousands for nothing
Having bad credit can mean that you aren't able to take out a loan because lenders don't want to deal with high-risk borrowers.
And when consumers are in a bind, they don't always think clearly when they see a possible quick fix to their troubles.
Complaints found on the Better Business Bureau site, for example, indicated that consumers paid anywhere from $1,100 to $4,000 to Top Tradelines to piggyback on someone's credit card accounts to build their own credit history.
"For a fee, defendants offer to register consumers as 'additional authorized users' on one or several credit cards or line of credit accounts held by unrelated account holders with long-standing positive payment histories (a practice also known as 'piggybacking' credit)," the FTC said in its complaint.
We're not talking here about the long practice of making a son or daughter an authorized user on a parent's credit card. That's a legitimate strategy for building credit.
Instead, we're talking about an outside company cooking up a deal that involves paying someone with great credit to give someone with bad credit a shot as being an authorized user to build up a credit history.
"They almost act like online companies that set up blind dates," said John Ulzheimer, a credit expert who formerly worked for credit-scoring company FICO.
Like online dating, you're not always talking about a happy ending, either.
"The reality is making the person an authorized user is a sham," said the FTC's Ashe.
The person with a low credit score is not truly an authorized user; they can't charge anything on the card. So they would be artificially raising a score, not accurately reflecting their creditworthiness and actual ability to pay their bills, if it worked, he said.
And it doesn't always work in someone's favor.
FICO has known about such shenanigans and long ago took steps to make sure that nefarious authorized user accounts would not have any or much impact on your credit score, Ulzheimer said.
Regular authorized user accounts — say between a parent and a child — would still have an impact, he said.
In general, consumers should limit authorized users on their credit cards to their family members or friends. And even then, Ulzheimer said, a significantly higher credit score isn't guaranteed as a result for someone with less-than-perfect credit or a younger consumer with little credit history.
"It's not going to turn FICO 500 into FICO 800," Ulzheimer said.
Here's a legitimate way to build credit
Ulzheimer said he built up his own credit history as a young man as an authorized user on his father's credit card. And plenty of people do the same.
About 15% of consumers opened their earliest reported credit account with a co-borrower, according to June 2017 report called "Becoming Credit Visible" by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"The credit records of an additional 9.6% of consumers were created when the consumer became an authorized user on someone else’s credit account," the report stated.
Such data would imply that about 1 in 4 consumers first acquire their credit history from an account for which others were also responsible. But such usage is less common in lower-income neighborhoods, the report said.
Beware of some credit tips on YouTube
Some pretty kooky claims are being made on YouTube these days, including videos on how consumers with great credit can make thousands of dollars just sitting around in an ugly recliner.
"I can actually make quite a bit of money every week by letting CreditCardCashFlow add people to my credit card," says Charles from New York on one YouTube video.
The FTC complaint also pointed out that another brand in the group — CreditCardCashFlow — solicited consumers with long-standing, positive payment histories to add outsiders as authorized users to their accounts. The third party is not able to use the card to charge anything.
"Defendants offer to pay these account holders to add other consumers as authorized users to their accounts, including third parties who are not family members or otherwise in close personal relationship with the account holder," the FTC complaint stated.
But someone with good credit could still be at risk if their information gets into the wrong hands and fraud is later involved. You're also taking part in making false statements to lenders.
What are the signs of a scam?
As with most questionable deals, there are many red flags when it comes to fixing your credit. Here are some to watch:
You're asked to pay a fee upfront before any of your debts are settled. Or some outfits require that you pay fees masquerading as “contributions.” It's illegal to require an upfront fee in order to fix your credit.
The so-called credit repair company tries to look like an official government program.
There are so-called guarantees to make the debt go away or improve your credit score.
There are promises that the company can erase your bad credit or remove information from your credit reports.
“The chances credit repair companies can do anything you couldn’t do on your own are very unlikely," said Laura Blankenship, director of marketing for the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
One huge problem: It’s not uncommon that the person ends up paying a hefty fee to the credit repair company — and then many still have bad credit or owe money for old loans once the company is unable to deliver its promises.
"Before signing any contracts, it’s important to look at the success rate of the company and research reviews online," Blankenship said.
You also have the right to cancel your contract with any credit repair organization for any reason within three business days from the date you signed it.
Remember, a credit repair organization cannot charge you until it has completed the promised services.
What are some real ways to fix your credit?
Take time to rebuild your credit by paying bills on time, paying off debt and avoiding taking on new debt.
Pay extra close attention to the limits on your credit cards and avoid charging more than 25% of the available line of credit on each card. This is true even if you pay off the bill each month.
You can dispute inaccurate information on your own. You should not have to pay anyone to do this for you.
It's also possible to get a co-signer with good credit on a car loan to get a lower interest rate. Or you may want to see if your landlord will report rent payments to credit bureaus.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Consumers lose thousands to fake credit repair scheme