Updated 03/22/2011 05:00 AM
Money Matters: Debt relief mailings take advantage of tax season worries
Debt relief companies are disguising their marketing materials to look like tax forms, but recipients should not be fooled by this junk mail version of a wolf in sheep's clothing. Money Matters reporter Tara Lynn Wagner filed the following report.
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Like most people, you probably do not open most of your junk mail. Direct marketers know this, and they have developed some official-looking Trojan Horses to make it past your recycling bin.
One debt relief program sends out a mailer that sports perforated edges and has text that makes it seem like a tax document. Chris Dlugozima of the non-profit GreenPath Debt Solutions says that is no accident.
"This is when people are getting other tax forms. They're getting their 1099 [tax forms], they're getting their W-2 [tax forms], and so forth," said Dlugozima. "So when they see '2010,' they're thinking, 'Oh, this is a tax form.' Even if I got this, in all honesty, knowing that, okay, it's probably a bogus thing, I'd still open it just on the off chance that it is something related to that."
That is precisely the marketers' goal, to get recipients to open the envelope. Once opened, the mailing shows potential ways to pay off a debt. The company does not have access to recipients' information, so hypothetical figures are thrown around, such as $40,000 in debt.
Not everyone can relate to that situation, but recipients who have a similar debt load could be easily deceived.
"The people that are overwhelmed with debt will kind of feel like they're speaking to them, they really know about their situation and want to help them -- not realizing it's just part of a marketing ploy," said Dlugozima.
In addition to the hypothetical debt load, the mailings will also offer up a hypothetical solution, which Dlugozima says is often based solely on assumptions.
"You don't know how the collector's going to react, you don't know how good of a settlement the debt collector's going to do, whether or not they'll even do a settlement," said Dlugozima. "It's based on a lot of best case scenarios, but not a lot of the things that can go wrong."
Those who decide to contact a debt relief company should be on the lookout for warning signs. Ignore advice to stop making payments and never pay anything in advance. Upfront fees are prohibited by the Federal Trade Commission.
Check with the local Better Business Bureau about any debt relief company, or try to find a non-profit counselor accredited by the Department of Justice. Remember, you can always negotiate with your creditors on your own, and avoid the middleman and the fees.