A federal judge, acting at the request of the the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has temporarily halted, and frozen the assets of, a Montreal operation that bilked more than $14 million from small businesses and churches in the United States for unwanted listings in online business directories.
The FTC is seeking a permanent halt to the illegal practices and wants to force make the defendants return victims’ money; the scheme has generated more than 13,000 complaints from consumers.
“Hiding behind borders to scam churches and small businesses is a tactic that we’ve seen before,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Scammers need to know that we have great relationships with our law enforcement partners in Canada and, as this case shows, we can and will work together to protect our consumers.”
Among the dozens of complaints ConsumerAffairs has received, is this from Annie of Watsonville, Calif: “An Indian man called saying he spoke with my husband yesterday (I know for a fact he didn't) and said he requested to cancel our business listing (we have none and never want one). He said he needed to verify our contact information in order to not charge us $1,500.00! He badgered me! I am so irate. I have never gotten a call this bad before. Something needs to be done about this company.”
The company is currently trying to bill me for a service that I didn't request,” writes Noemi of Delano, Calif. “I did not sign any contract. They are trying to bill me over $500.00. I feel like they are trying to scam me into paying. I've spoken with them, and explained that I never ordered their services, or signed anything for it. They want me to pay for something I didn't want, or request.”
According to court papers filed by the FTC, the defendants operated from Montreal, using corporate shells and mail drops in the U.S. to hide their actual location. Typically, they made phone calls pretending they were verifying contact information to update or confirm existing directory listings. In some cases, the defendants said they were calling in response to a cancellation request, and asked to verify the organization’s contact information to confirm the cancellation. In fact, the defendants had no prior relationship with the consumers.
The bills sent by the defendants averaged $499.99 or more and had a “walking fingers” image often associated with a local yellow pages directory. Some consumers paid, thinking someone in their organization had ordered these listings. Other consumers paid after the defendants used partially recorded phone conversations with consumers who had verified their contact information to convince them that they had a binding oral contract with the defendants, according to the FTC’s complaint.
Consumers who ignored the bills or refused to pay received collection calls and dunning notices, often with added interest charges, late fees, and legal fees, as well as threats of collection agency referral, credit rating damage, and legal action, the FTC alleged. To make consumers believe third-party debt collectors were involved, the defendants created two debt collection companies, CC Recovery and M&A Recovery, which also made threats. The defendants’ threats convinced many consumers to pay the bills, the FTC alleged.
The FTC’s complaint claims the defendants violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting that they had a preexisting business relationship with consumers, that consumers had agreed to buy directory listings, and that consumers owed them money.
The defendants are Mohamad Khaled Kaddoura, Derek Cessford, and Aaron Kirby, and the companies they ran:
- Modern Technology Inc., also doing business as Online Local Yellow Pages;
- Strategic Advertisement Ltd., also d/b/a Local Business Yellow Pages;
- Dynamic Ad Corp., also d/b/a Yellow National Directory and Yellowpages Local Directory;
- Wisetak Inc., also d/b/a Online Public Yellow Pages and US Public Yellow Pages;
- Wisetak, Inc., also d/b/a Online Public Yellow Pages and US Public Yellow Pages;
- Internet Solutions LLC, also d/b/a Public Yellow Pages;
- Yellow Pages Express Inc., also d/b/a Yellow Pages Express;
- Yellow Pages Online Inc., also d/b/a Yellow Pages Online;
- CessTech Inc., also d/b/a Yellow US Pages;
- SEO Online Inc., also d/b/a Yellow Local Directory;
- SEO Online LLC; SEOOnline, also d/b/a Public Yellow Pages;
- SEM Pundits Inc., also d/b/a Yellow Pages Online;
- CC Recovery Corporation, also d/b/a CC Recovery; and
- M&A Recovery Inc., also d/b/a MA Recovery.