Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller may not have his cousin Fuzzy's golf game, but he's second to none when it comes to settling the score in favor of Hoosiers.
Elected in 2008, the New Albany native serves as the attorney for the state of Indiana. The attorney general represents the state in cases involving a state interest. In addition, Zoeller provides legal defense for state officials and agencies and advises the governor, legislators and other officials on legal matters. As the result of legislation we passed last year, the attorney general also defends teachers in school discipline lawsuits.
Consumer protection is a major focus. For example, earlier this month, Zoeller filed a complaint against a Louisville attorney who allegedly deceived an Indiana family into paying him hundreds of dollars for budget management services.
It's a growing problem. The recession has left debt-ridden consumers looking for help, and many look in the wrong places. By the middle of this month, Zoeller's office had received 87 consumer complaints against credit service organizations so far this year, already surpassing the 69 complaints received in all of 2009.
A new law that took effect July 1 requires all debt management and debt consolidation companies to register a $25,000 surety bond with the attorney general's office. The bond acts as an insurance policy for consumers in the event the company fails to perform the services and does not provide a refund.
For Hoosiers with overwhelming debt, it is impossible to ignore the endless offers on television and radio, in newspapers and online that promise to fix bad credit easily and fast. The reality is these promises are misleading, and often the companies are operating illegally. Victims of these scams often lose hundreds or thousands of dollars - without any improvement in their credit.
Zoeller's office advises consumers to watch for five red flags:
· The company wants you to pay upfront before it provides any services.
· The company doesn't tell you your rights and what you can do for yourself for free.
· The company recommends that you don't contact any of the three major national consumer reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) directly.
· The company tells you it can get rid of most or all the negative credit information in your credit report, even if the information is accurate and current.
· The company suggests that you apply for an employer identification number to use instead of your Social Security number so you can invent a "new" credit identity.
To file a complaint or to confirm whether a credit service organization has a surety bond on file, call the attorney general's Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-382-5516.
Zoeller recommends Hoosiers avoid for-profit companies for credit counseling and reminds Hoosiers that repairing credit takes time, effort and a personal debt repayment plan. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (1-800-388-2227) certifies legitimate nonprofit credit counseling services and can provide referrals to member agencies.
State law prohibits the attorney general from practicing private law. This means Zoeller and his deputies can't represent you in court or provide you with individual legal advice. Low-income individuals may seek assistance in civil cases from Legal Volunteers, which is in New Albany (949-2292), or Indiana Legal Services (1-800-892-2776), which also has an office in New Albany. Neither organization can assist with criminal matters.
With a few exceptions, the attorney general does not have legal jurisdiction to file criminal charges. That's the job of county prosecutors. One exception is state tax evasion.
Last year, Zoeller filed criminal charges against the owners of a commercial dog-breeding operation in Harrison County - a so-called "puppy-mill" - who sold dogs to consumers without charging sales tax.
Zoeller seized 240 dogs and puppies that had been confined in squalid cages. The dogs were cared for at an emergency shelter that was set up in New Albany. After receiving veterinary care, the dogs were transferred to 10 animal shelters around the state and made eligible for adoption.
Looking out for Hoosiers - even canine Hoosiers - is what the attorney general does. More information, including extensive consumer protection information, is available at www.in.gov/attorneygeneral.
Online survey available
I would like your opinion on several hot issues. A survey is available on my website, www.in.gov/h72. Following are the eight questions for the benefit of readers who do not have Internet access; if you fall into that category and want to express your opinion on one or more of the issues, please call or write my office.
· Currently, Indiana's monthly income is about $55 million less than Indiana's monthly spending obligations. Do you favor the state maintaining enough savings to cover our monthly expenses or increasing taxes to cover the shortfall?
· Do you think the recently passed federal healthcare law will increase your healthcare costs, decrease them or have no effect?
· Would you favor the Indiana General Assembly passing legislation to exempt our state from participating in the federal healthcare plan?
· Would you support the Indiana General Assembly passing legislation similar to what Arizona passed regarding illegal immigration?
· Recently, Indiana moved to a universal identification system to purchase alcohol for carryout purchases in order to combat underage drinking. Do you favor this approach, oppose universal carding or support the requirement but feel that any individual who appears to be over 50 years of age should not have to show identification?
· Do you think all drivers should be prohibited from texting while driving?
· Should Indiana direct a majority of its job creation incentives to existing businesses, attracting new businesses or a combination of both?
· Do you think increasing and/or extending unemployment benefits encourages unemployed Hoosiers to go back to work, discourages them from going back to work or has no effect?