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January 4, 2013

On January 4, 2013, Ontario’s consumer protection agency (the Ministry of Consumer Services) announced that it is planning to regulate debt settlement companies and issued proposed regulatory changes for public comments.  In making the announcement, Ontario’s Minister of Consumer Services said:

“There is evidence of harmful practices used by some debt settlement companies and that is why our government is taking steps to protect consumers.  We want to put a stop to abusive practices in the marketplace.  Consumers should know their rights before they sign contracts and they should not make any payments until they get results.”

The new regulations, which according to the Ministry are intended to protect Ontario consumers from “exaggerated claims and abusive practices”, may include regulations to: (i) prevent debt settlement companies from charging up-front fees, (ii) limiting the fees debt settlement companies can charge consumers, (iii) require clear and transparent contracts (clear disclosure of key contract terms including fees, services and conditions) and (iv) require a ten-day cooling-off period.

The new rules would apply to for-profit and not-for-profit operators offering to arrange debt settlements for consumers and would be subject to existing Ontario consumer protection laws (e.g., the Collection Agencies Act and Consumer Protection Act).  The planned new rules would also apply to traditional debt management plans offered through credit counseling services.

In addition to general misrepresentations of material facts, the proposed new regulations would also prohibit specific categories of misleading advertising in relation to debt settlement services including: whether an operator is providing services on a non-profit basis; is approved/licensed or government regulated; amount of time to achieve results; amount of money (or percentage of debts) a consumer may potentially save; and impacts on creditworthiness and collection efforts.

For a copy of the Ministry’s news release see: Ontario Protecting Consumers Seeking Financial Help.  For a copy of the regulatory proposal, open for comments until February 25, 2013, see: here.

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