A New York court has ordered the promoters of the "9/11 Freedom Tower" coin scam to pay nearly $370,000 in penalties and a Pennsylvania-based mail order house has been ordered to refund $25,000 in payments for phony commemorative coins.
New York Supreme Court Justice Thomas McNamara ordered National Collectors Mint (NCM) to pay civil penalties totaling $369,510 in connection with its marketing and sale of its "Freedom Tower Silver Dollar." The company has already refunded more than $2 million to consumers who fell for the scam.
"Im pleased that the court agreed with our contention that this firm impermissably exploited public sentiments concerning the tragic events of September 11 and defrauded the public," New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said. "The significant penalty ordered by the judge should deter such unlawful conduct in the future."
In September 2004, NCM began an extensive advertising campaign for the "Freedom Tower" coin on television, in magazines and on its website. The ads depicted the coin as a "legally authorized government issue silver dollar" and as a "U.S. territorial minting" from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
In fact, the coin is not a government-issued silver dollar at all, but was manufactured and issued by a private company. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands uses U.S. currency and is not authorized to mint legal tender.
The ads also claimed that the coin was made of pure silver from silver bars recovered at Ground Zero during recovery operations. Spitzers lawsuit showed, however, that the medallion is not made of pure or solid silver, but is an inexpensive metal alloy plated with approximately one ten-thousandth of an inch of silver valued at approximately 1.4 cents.
The question of whether the silver used in the medallion is actually from Ground Zero was not involved in the lawsuit.
Soon after the advertising campaign began, Spitzer obtained an order from the late Justice Joseph Cannizzaro in State Supreme Court in Albany halting the scam. In a subsequent decision, Justice Cannizzaro ordered the company to send corrective letters offering refunds to all consumers who had purchased or ordered the coin. Consumers received $2.2 million as a result of refunds and cancellations pursuant to that order.
In Pennsylvania, a mail order business will issue refunds and pay more than $25,000 for allegedly billing and attempting to collect payments from consumers for commemorative coins and other collectible items that failed to arrive, were never ordered, or were returned and not credited.
The legal action follows an investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection into more than 100 complaints from consumers throughout Pennsylvania and 36 other states.
Attorney General Tom Corbett said an "Assurance of Voluntary Compliance" was filed in Cumberland County Court against American Mint LLC of Mechanicsburg.
The action resolves alleged violations of Pennsylvania's Consumer Protection Law; Federal Trade Commission's Trade Regulation Rule Concerning Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise; FTC Rule Concerning Prenotification Negative Option Plans; Federal Truth in Lending Regulation Z and other state and federal acts pertaining to the Mailing of Unordered or Unsolicited Merchandise.
The settlement requires American Mint to pay more than $25,000 in fines and investigation costs, issue refunds to consumers who come forward and file a complaint before November 7, 2005 and dramatically alter the way it conducts its mail order business in the future.
According to investigators, the company between 1999 and 2005 promoted the sale of numerous coins and other items commemorating American history, American presidents, Aviation & Air Force One, and other significant events or occasions.
The items were advertised on television, the Internet or through direct mail. The items ranged in price from an initial $5 introductory offer to subsequent shipments of merchandise that cost $49.99 plus shipping and handling.
The unsolicited sales offers that were mailed to consumers typically promoted the merchandise as "strictly limited edition" or "unique" commemorative collector pieces.
The sales offer included a "reservation form" that listed the reservation number, payment options, signature and e-mail requests and "reservation conditions." The offers urged consumers to respond, in some cases, before the 10-day deadline due to the "expected high demand" of the particular item.
Many consumers who made an initial purchase complained that they began to receive subsequent shipments of similar but more expensive items that they never ordered. The purchases appeared in some cases as unauthorized charges on their credit cards. Consumers who filed complaints sought refunds that ranged between $4 and $948.
Those who received bills for the unwanted items and refused to pay were notified that their past due account including late fees would be forwarded to a collection agency. Still others claimed that the company attempted to collect on accounts even though the items were returned. Additionally, some consumers failed to receive the items and were billed for the purchases.
According to investigators, American Mint is accused of failing to adequately inform consumers at the time of purchase that they were enrolling in a membership program and agreeing to receive subsequent shipments of similar merchandise.
To be removed from the mailing lists, some consumers claimed that American Mint told them they must contact the Direct Marketing Association on their own.
American Mint is accused of violating the FTC Rule Concerning Prenotification Option Plans by failing to clearly and conspicuously disclose the material terms of the plan including that it is a membership program.
The terms must also include the minimum purchase obligations, the cancellation procedures, methods to reject merchandise and whether or not the price includes shipping and handling fees.
Under other state and federal laws, consumers are not required to return unsolicited or unordered merchandise that is mailed to their home or business.
"Consumers were not sure what to do with the unwanted items and even less certain about how to stop additional packages from arriving," Corbett said. "Even more frustrating, were numerous instances where consumers paid to return the merchandise, yet continued to receive bills or past due notices. Our legal action provides restitution to consumers who paid for the unwanted items and shipping fees, and also bans this business practice in the future while requiring full disclosure about any membership programs."
Prior to the legal action, the Bureau of Consumer Protection obtained nearly $7,700 in refunds for consumers who either paid for the unwanted merchandise or paid the shipping and handling costs to return the items.
Under the terms of the agreement, American Mint admits no wrongdoing and agrees to:
• Issue full refunds to eligible consumers who have not yet filed a complaint with the Attorney General's Office and who submit a complaint before November 7, 2005. Complaint forms can be obtained by calling 1-800-441-2555
• Provide an opportunity for consumers to cancel their orders and receive refunds or request delivery of the pre-paid merchandise that they have not received within the time stated in the solicitation or within 30 days of the order.
• Clearly and conspicuously notify consumers that they are joining a membership plan to include subsequent shipments of similar merchandise.
• Pay $25,000 in civil penalties and investigation costs.
• Comply with all applicable state and federal laws.