Beware the Pitch of Credit Repair

You've probably heard their ads.

They say they can clean up your credit report, jack up your credit score, and put you on the road to easy credit.

In the thick of this global credit nightmare, it is very telling that complaints about credit repair companies are up, doubled from this time just last year.

Financial embarrassments like bankruptcy, foreclosure or defaults stay on your credit record for a fixed amount of time, but that doesn't stop some credit repair companies from promising otherwise.

"He looked at my credit report and he's like, 'Oh, yeah, I can get this off. I can change this,'" recalled Jennifer Smith, now aware that she fell right into a trap.

"I was trying to buy a house," Smith explained. "I wasn't aiming for perfect credit, but at least just to get me where I needed to be."

Smith says a mortgage broker referred her to Chicago-based Advantage Credit Repair. Their pitch hit home.

"I can devote the time that's needed to get these negative items removed," Smith of the pitch, "'And we can get you where you need to be, within, I would say, a six month time period.' And I'm like, 'Hey, that's great!'"

Smith said Advantage promised her a 100-point gain on her credit score, but the only number she got, after months of waiting, was a loss: her $450 fee.

"No actions were taken, period. It's like I paid a ghost," Smith said.

A chorus of similar complaints about Advantage caught the attention of investigators. Many clients said they paid upfront, but their calls were not returned. Ultimately, their credit scores were unchanged, or worse.

The complaints led to a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission against Advantage and its owner, Mark Solomon.

"They were claiming they could get judgments, bankruptcies and tax things off of peoples' credit reports, when they couldn't," said Steve Baker with the FTC.

The agency accused Advantage of making false and misleading statements, like one example from the company's now-defunct website: "Any derogatory item on a credit report can be removed, depending on the circumstance and skill of your credit repair company."

It's a claim the FTC says is absolutely impossible.

"We've alleged that it has made false claims; that it can get truthful information removed from credit reports and substantially improve peoples' credit reports," Baker said.

The lawsuit also accuses Advantage of violating the Credit Repair Organizations Act, which prohibits companies from charging for the performance of any service, before it's "fully performed."

Baker said that law is aimed at protecting a group of consumers already down on their luck.

"There's a lot of crooks out there. It's bad enough to be in debt and have financial problems without being ripped off too," Baker said.

Through his attorney, Advantage Credit Repair owner Solomon offered no comment on the pending lawsuit.

As far as credit repair, mistakes do happen. Consumers have a right to get errors off their report at no cost to them, but accurate negative information cannot be erased.

Bankruptcy stays for 10 years. Other negatives stick around for 7 years.

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