Officials warn of bill payment loan scam
Nov 14, 2012 (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Authorities are warning residents about a Milwaukee company that claims to provide loans to help people pay their bills but is really scamming applicants out of $20 fees.
The company, My Bill Assist, offers people up to $1,500 in loans for rent, car payments, and utility and cellphone bills. Applicants only have to pay an application fee of $20 and a membership fee of $20 for the bill assistance program and wait for the check to show up. Some applicants were told they wouldn't even have to pay back the loan, which was to come from the federal government.
Word of the free money spread quickly in Milwaukee over the past three weeks and applicants flocked to the company's location at 2821 N. 4th St. for appointments. Sharon Austin, a disabled and retired Milwaukee resident, was one of them.
"The word of mouth just spread it everywhere. I heard a lady say, 'Go get the $1,500! It's free money!' " said Austin, who later contacted the Journal Sentinel.
"At first we were told it was from President Obama, who had put up some funds for people who are having trouble with their bills. When we got down there, it was a different story. Everyone seems to think it was government funding they had to help thousands of people with their bills. They said, 'It's not a scam, you don't have to pay it back.' Stay in the membership at least a couple of months. If you pay for a couple of months, we would be able to borrow again, I think every five to six months," Austin said.
Austin searched the company online and found the program's website, which said it was not a scam. She set up an appointment at My Bill Assist on Oct. 25 and filled out an application form. During the meeting, which took place in a hallway rather than an office, a representative for My Bill Assist made copies of Austin's bills and took her personal information, including her Social Security number. Austin also paid a $20 fee on a prepaid debit card as the representative requested.
"When we filled out the application, on the application, it had 'How much would you need for your bills ' They were telling people different amounts to put in. Some, they said $200, some $500, some $1,000. I just did my cable bill. They told me to put down $500. My electric bill was $85. They were like, 'We can help with these bills.' I'm like, 'OK.' "
Austin didn't get any paperwork, but was told she'd get a call within 24 hours from Elite Billing Service, an affiliate of My Bill Assist. When someone from Florida called her later, she was told she would get another call or an email within five to seven days about the size of the loan she was approved for and where to pick up the money. The phone call never came, so she called to ask for an update.
"Now they're saying their funds are running low so it'll be the end of December," she said Tuesday.
While many of Austin's friends say they paid the $20 fee, no one has been confirmed to have received any loan money, she said. And the company now appears to be using a different location, at 843 W. Wells St.
The Journal Sentinel tried calling the company's 800 number, but got only an automated message.
"Thank you for calling the bill assistance program," the message said. "Due to the overwhelming response, we are now accepting applications online. You may visit our website at . . . "
Since Oct. 30, the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau has received 78 inquiries from people about the program and the company, which is also known as Elite Training Service Inc. and Elite Billing Service, said Lisa Schiller, a trade practice investigator for the Better Business Bureau.
"We're hearing from people just calling in and saying, 'Is this legit ' And from people who paid the $20 and then are questioning it," Schiller said. "Most paid a $20 'application fee.' They're promised free money. There is no free money.
"They're saying they heard about it through family members. What I've heard is, the people behind this have gone to church groups and given speeches about this. It's so new," she said. "People, I think, don't realize they're having a problem as of yet."
Schiller said the BBB sent out a standard business questionnaire at the end of October to the company to get more information on what it does, but has not received a response. The BBB has also posted an alert on the business.
What she did find out, however, is that the company does not hold the license with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions that is required to provide hardship loans.
George Althoff, a spokesman with the Department of Financial Institutions, said the department doesn't know enough about the company to say exactly which licenses may be required.
"DFI has received no documentation and no information on this company, so without knowing more specifically what they're doing, we can't say whether it's an adjustment service company or a loan company," he said. "DFI has received inquiries and complaints from several consumers. So far, that's all we've received. We have no documentation to go on. We're very interested in any information consumers would have regarding this sort of activity."
Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz said police are investigating multiple complaints about the company. She encouraged people to file complaints about My Bill Assist with District 5 on 2920 N. 4th St. She called the program a "scam."
Althoff encouraged people to be cautious.
"The fact that we had some complaints would be cause for people to be cautious and to ask a lot of questions and to get things in writing," he said. "When it comes to financial transactions of any amount, they should use common sense, get transactions in writing, ask a lot of questions. If something doesn't pass the sniff test, hold off. And ask the appropriate governmental agency or law enforcement agency whether a business is on the up and up."
File a police report
Anyone who has had dealings with My Bill Assist, Elite Billing Service Inc. or Elite Training Service is asked to file a complaint, preferably in person, with the Milwaukee Police Department, District 5, at 2920 N. 4th St. Bring as much documentation as you have. You can also call the district at (414) 935-7253.
People are also asked to file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions by calling (608) 264-7969 or (800) 452-3328, or filling out a complaint form online at http://www.wdfi.org/contact_us/complaint.asp.
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