Nov. 9, 2010 at 9:00 AM ET
"They've never lost a case," Dee told me repeatedly, even as I expressed my incredulity. She also asked several times if I had more than $10,000 in debt. "Of course, they don't work pro bono ... but you do qualify for help."
I met Dee because she sent out text messages all around the country recently, asking people to call about a survey. When I called, she reiterated that she was conducting a survey. But the only questions she asked involved whether or not I wanted to be connected to a debt expert.
As new federal rules kick in severely limiting the way debt settlement companies operate, experts have predicted the industry might be simply pushed further underground. Dee's unsolicited text messages might be evidence of that.
"We're following up to see if you qualify for a program to get help," Dee said to me. "We work with an advocacy group that only deals with individuals who have debts over $10,000."
After asking me a few questions about what kind of debt I hold, she assured me that the advocacy company was not a debt consolidation company.
"It's a pretty simple process," she said. "They trigger your consumer rights and go after banks" that have taken advantage of consumers. She then said clients' debts could be reduced by as much as 90 percent.
How did Dee decide who to survey?
"We purchase lists," she said. "We sent texts across the U.S."
What's the name of the advocacy company?
"It's called Consumer Advocates," she said. She then directed me to their Web site at USAConsumerAdvocates.com.
A call placed to the contact phone number listed on the site was answered by an operator, who connected a reporter to a woman who said her name was Tiffany. She denied the company was using unsolicited text messages to advertise, but didn't deny that texts were sent.
"They are taking surveys and referring people to companies," Tiffany said of the survey-taker, CA Surveys. "But if you aren't interested then I think we're done here," and then she hung up.
The firm didn't respond to an e-mail request for further comment.
Leads can be worth $300
The use of third-party marketing firms is standard for many debt settlement companies, said Andy Faria, who runs Massachusetts-based Northeast Settlement Group, also a debt settlement company. The payoff can be big -- $200 or even $300 per lead, he said.
That's one reason debt settlement firms -- until recently recognized by ubiquitous 50-cents-on-the-debt-dollar advertisements -- have traditionally charged high up-front fees. Faria is supportive of new Federal Trade Commission rules that restrict ad claims and nearly eliminate upfront fees.
"Marketing is where it all starts," he said. "Obviously when you are paying $200 a lead you have to put on the hard sell. That's where a lot of these companies have gone wrong."
Faria said he hadn't yet seen text message spam from a debt settlement firm, but he'd heard about their use.
"I've seen it all. Marketing companies will come up with anything to get phones to ring," he said. "That is cheap. They can send out texts for one or two cents a message."
It's possible that debt settlement firms will turn en masse to sending unsolicited cell phone text messages to potential clients in an irritating attempt to circumvent new federal rules limiting their marketing outlets, said Chris Viale, CEO of Massachusetts-based Cambridge Credit Counseling.
Viale's firm provided msnbc.com with the initial text message from Dee. A public relations representative of the firm received it, along with two other related texts last week, he said. Viale said he'd received a separate unwanted text message during this past weekend. By calling the text a survey, he suspects the firm hopes to create an exception from the new FTC rules.
Those rules, which took effect Oct. 27, apply principally to broadcast advertisements and telephone solicitations, and severely limit the claims debt settlement companies can make, along with most up-front fees.
Industry observer Steve Rhode said he hadn't seen unsolicited text messages yet, but he had heard rumors about the technique, and called it "only a matter of time." He's collecting other ads he called misleading at his Web site getoutofdebt.org.
Unwanted text messages are more than just a nuisance -- they can cost recipients some money. Consumers who don't have an all-you-can-text plan generally pay 20 cents each.
Court: Sender might have to pay
U.S. courts have yet to definitively decide if unwanted text messages are akin to spam or unwanted phone calls – and what, if any, penalties can be imposed on senders. But a ruling last year by a federal appeals court in San Francisco said that Simon & Shuster could be held liable for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act after it sent out text messages advertising a Stephen King novel. The court ruled that because automated tools were used to generate the messages, the bookseller violated federal law -- allowing a consumer to go ahead with a $90 million class action lawsuit.
The risk that unwanted texts could lead to legal action is just another reason Faria thinks his industry needs to quickly clean up its act, or else face potential business-killing legislation from Congress.
"It's very important that companies recognize these new regulations and start getting behind them," he said. "If not, there's going to be fee caps ... that absolutely have the potential to shut this industry down."