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Current Events in May 1999

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    Modeling Scam

    IF YOU'VE GOT "the Look" . . . LOOK OUT!

    Virginia-Based Modeling Agencies Lure Thousands of Consumers with Exaggerated Promises of Lucrative Modeling/Acting Jobs

    WASHINGTON, May 28, 1999 -- If someone stops you on the street, hands you a card, and tells you "you've got the look," you may be on your way to becoming the victim of a modeling scam, the Federal Trade Commission advises.

    That was the case with three Washington, D.C.-area modeling agencies that, the FTC alleged, lured consumers into making substantial investments in their talent management services by promising high-paying assignments with well-known entities in the entertainment and fashion world. In fact, the FTC said, the companies' primary business was enrolling consumers in modeling and acting classes.

    The FTC has charged Model 1, Inc., Creative Talent Management, Inc., and The Erickson Agency, Inc. with misrepresenting their ability to get lucrative job assignments for consumers as models and actors. Thedefendants have agreed with the FTC to an interim court order not to engage in the practices alleged in the complaint pending final resolution of this matter.

    "If someone approaches you on the street or on the subway, and flatters you by saying 'You've got the look that we are looking for,' hold on to your purse strings, " said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "You may be on your way to being a victim, not playing a role or posing for pictures."

    This case is part of recent Commission efforts to stop bogus talent and modeling agents from engaging in deceptive practices. On May 27, 1999, the FTC announced that a federal District Court had temporarily halted Screen Test U.S.A., a New Jersey based company, and its affiliates, from misrepresenting their expertise at judging the suitability of children to become models and actors, and misleading consumers to believe that their chances of being picked up by well-known talent agencies were enhanced by the consumers' affiliation with Screen Test U.S.A.

    The Commission announced on May 26, that it had won a permanent injunction against National Talent Associates, another New Jersey-based seller of child-modeling services. In addition, to further educate consumers on how to avoid being victims of a modeling rip-off, the Commission has published a consumer brochure, "If You've Got 'the Look' ... Look Out! Avoiding Modeling Scams." The brochure tells consumers what the unscrupulous model and talent scouts say versus what they actually mean.

    The FTC's complaint names Model 1, Inc., based in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, and its president, Jason Hoffman; Creative Talent Management, Inc. and its president, Ralph Edward Bell; and The Erickson Agency, Inc. and its president, Patricia Erickson. Both Creative Talent and The Erickson Agency are based in McLean, Virginia.

    According to the complaint, the defendants represent themselves as talent management agencies. The defendants' salespeople approach consumers in public places -- in shopping malls and metro stations -- throughout the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area with a line and a card. When consumers come to the defendants' office for what they believe is a job interview, they are instead sold a package of training classes and photographs that costs anywhere from several hundred to more than a thousand dollars. In order to convince the consumer to pay for the training program, the defendants falsely represent that they are highly selective in their scouting, screening and review process; that acceptance into their training program is extremely limited; that they have placed models and actors in many glamorous jobs, such as popular movies, tv shows, or print ads for major retail department stores and associations, and that the applicant can expect substantial pay as a model or actor, if accepted.

    To further boost applicants' interest, the defendants claim that their primary source of income comes from the commissions on the modeling and acting jobs they get for consumers. In fact, according to the FTC, consumers who completed the defendants' training program seldom receive any paid employment, and as a result, the defendants get their income from fees paid by consumers for their management "services" including modeling and acting classes, not commissions as they claimed.

    The Commission vote to authorize staff to file the complaint was 4-0. The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, in Alexandria, on May 25, 1999. The FTC received tremendous assistance from the Washington, D.C. Better Business Bureau, and the Fairfax County (VA) Department of Telecommunications and Consumer Services.

    Copies of the news release and the consumer brochure are available from the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov and copies of the FTC's complaint, as well as other documents associated with the modeling cases are also available from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-FTC-HELP (202-382-4357); TDD for the hearing impaired 202-326-2502. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.

    FTC Slams Virginia Modeling Scams...
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    Providian Probe

    SAN FRANCISCO, May 23, 1999 -- The San Francisco District Attorney is investigating allegations of unfair business practices against Providian Financial Corp., the nation's ninth-largest issuer of credit cards, a spokesman said.

    "We got a lot of complaints," District Attorney spokesman Clarence Johnson said.  He declined to specify the alleged abuses but said they include the sale of credit cards, disclosure of terms and debt collection.

    San Francisco-based Providian targets customers with tarnished credit histories.  It has been a darling of Wall Street but its shares plunged 14 percent on May 21, when word of the D.A.'s probe was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and KRON-TV.

    Providian denied any wrongdoing.  "We're confident we are in compliance with all laws and regulations," the company said in a prepared statement.

    The Oakland Better Business Bureau said it had received 850 complaints about Providian, ranging from allegedly deceptive credit card soliciations to failure to properly post payments.

    San Francisco D.A. Opens Probe of Providian...
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    Consumers Unwittingly Giving Up Their Right to Sue

    WASHINGTON, May 22, 1999 -- The right to seek redress in the courts is every American's birthright, but it is being signed away everyday by consumers too busy to notice.

    Tired of having to defend themselves in court, banks, car dealers, computer firms, credit card companies and others are inserting clauses in their service agreements and contracts that prohibit their customers from suing or even participating in class-action lawsuits.  Instead, consumers agree to use arbitration or mediation, a process under which they give up their right to trial by jury and the strict rules of discovery and procedure that protect the rights of both sides in a court proceeding.

    American Express adopted just such language in a bland-looking modification of its basic agreement mailed to cardholders in June.   Gateway 2000 puts its arbitration provision in a pamphlet that is usually inserted in the packing material when a computer is shipped.  First USA Bank has a mediation clause in its agreements with 58 million cardholders.

    The corporations argue that mediation saves time and money.  But consumer advocates and attorneys the savings are one-sided.   Mediation often costs the customer more money, since it is not possible to find a lawyer willing to work on contingency, and it is generally much harder for customers to win in a mediation than in a trial.

    Experts say mediation works best when both parties are roughly equal -- between two large companies, for example, or two individuals.  But when one side is a huge corporation and the other is an individual, the procedure can break down.

    In traditional consumer cases, plaintiffs with a strong case are usually able to find a lawyer to handle it on a contingency basis, so that there is virtually no upfront cost.  But arbitration often requires a deposit and both sides must split the cost of the arbitrator, who can charge as much as $1,000 a day.

    Various federal agencies are studying the issue to see if additional regulation is needed and there are various cases pending in the courts that may establish a precedent one way or the other.

    Until then, the only recourse open to consumers is to be vigilant about giving up their right to sue.

    Consumers Unwittingly Giving Up their right to sue...
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