The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stayed especially busy in 2019 by responding to fraud complaints from consumers.
In a report wrapping up the year, the FTC said it received 3.2 million reports to its Consumer Sentinel Network last year. FTC responses led to $232 million in refunds to consumers.
The FTC said it had to respond to common scams most of the time, with imposter scams being the most prevalent. Imposter scams -- in which criminals pretended to be government officials from agencies like the FBI, IRS, and Social Security Administration -- were frequent sources of complaints.
Criminals also masqueraded as employees of telephone, utility, and credit reporting companies, usually with the objective of tricking victims into making unnecessary payments or revealing sensitive information.
Government imposter scams
In a mid-year report, the FTC said the number of complaints about government imposter scams had reached record levels totaling about 1.3 million since 2014. The agency said it received about 46,600 complaints in May alone from consumers who were contacted by someone who claimed to be calling on behalf of a government agency.
Under the FTC Act, the agency is authorized to go to court to force fraud offenders into compensating victims. During 2019, more than 1.9 million consumers received and cashed refund checks from the FTC as a result of enforcement actions.
Not all consumers cashed their checks, so that money was used to send additional mailings in an effort to identify victims. Any remaining money is returned to taxpayers through the U.S. Treasury.
2019 enforcement actions
Among its enforcement actions last year, the FTC shut down operations of four robocallers that were not only accused of violating the Telemarketing Act but were also pushing dubious or outright fraudulent products or services.
A court banned the defendants from robocalling and most other telemarketing activities, including using an automatic dialer. Additionally, they were ordered to pay “significant financial judgments.”
In September, the FTC took action against operators marketing student loan debt relief services, saying the case provided a cautionary tale for consumers struggling under student loan debt burdens.
The agency charged two student loan debt relief operations and the financing company that assisted them with stepping over several legal lines by charging illegal upfront fees and making false promises.
The FTC receives complaints directly from consumers, as well as from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and a number of private partners. Consumers can file a complaint online or call the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357).