Protecting consumers from underhanded business deals is an important part of my job. Too often, constituents who work hard and take care of their families are duped in financial transactions that can empty a bank account and damage a person’s credit score, making it difficult—if not impossible—to buy a house or secure a line of credit.
I joined more than a dozen of my House of Delegates colleagues during the 2011 General Assembly to strengthen our state’s Consumer Protection Act, a law that has helped Maryland protect its citizens from unscrupulous businesses and merchants, but needed improvement.
I worked to bolster the law because during difficult economic times of high unemployment—although Maryland has one of the country’s lowest jobless rates —families get desperate, and many times, a dishonest business person is there to take advantage of Americans during their most financially vulnerable times.
Perhaps the most important part of our state’s improved Consumer Protection Act is the requirement for debt settlement companies to register with Maryland before they do business with our citizens.
A simple Internet search will turn up hundreds of horror stories from recent years—stories that detail families falling on hard times, racking up credit card bills, falling behind on their mortgage and seeking help from companies that promise to consolidate debt and help families escape its crushing burden.
Too many of these stories end with debt settlement companies charging exorbitant fees and worsening a family’s debt situation. These companies operate across the country, and are not required to register with state governments before they offer services to families in financial trouble.
Thanks to the improvement of our consumer law, the state will get a chance to review these companies’ business practices and make sure hardworking men and women are not exploited.
Violating Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act doesn’t garner a simple legal slap on the wrist. Breaking these laws, run by the Consumer Protection Division, comes with a fine of up to $1,000 for the first offense, and fines of up to $5,000 for subsequent violations. For the worst offenders, the Consumer Protection Division can charge a merchant with a misdemeanor. The merchant, in serious cases, would be subject to the law’s harshest penalty: up to one year in prison.
Safeguarding Marylanders against the devastating effects of financial exploitation is critical as our economy recovers and people get back to work. I was glad to see the Consumer Protection Act gained much-deserved attention from a host of Annapolis legislators this year, and I hope review of consumer protection laws becomes common practice in the General Assembly.