Four deceptive telemarketing operations have agreed to abandon the illegal tactics they allegedly used to scam consumers -- such as charging for products that were never ordered, making bogus claims about their products, and harassing consumers with unwanted phone calls -- under settlements with the Federal Trade Commission.
Defendants responsible for the four telemarketing operations, which were sued by the FTC last year as part of the largest telemarketing fraud sweep ever coordinated by the agency, have signed court orders barring them from these and other illegal practices.
The law enforcement sweep, "Operation Tele-PHONEY," included 13 FTC complaints against unscrupulous telemarketers who allegedly defrauded more than 500,000 consumers, resulting in losses of more than $100 million. With these settlements, all defendants in nine of the 13 "Tele-PHONEY" cases have settled the FTC's charges, and courts have permanently prohibited the telemarketers' illegal activity.
In one other "Tele-PHONEY" complaint, the FTC said it has added 15 new defendants, and a court has preliminarily barred the illegal conduct of 10 of them.
Combined with the actions brought by other agencies, the "Tele-PHONEY" sweep encompassed more than 180 cases, including both civil and criminal actions in the U.S. and Canada. In many of the FTC actions, federal courts temporarily froze the defendants' assets and suspended their operations pending trial soon after the complaints were filed.
In the complaints resulting in these settlements, the FTC charged that:
• Montreal-based Med Provisions operated a bogus online pharmacy that sold sham "membership packages" to elderly consumers for $389. The company claimed its online pharmacy could save customers 30 percent to 50 percent on prescription drug costs, and offered a 30-day money-back "guarantee." But according to the FTC, consumers who ordered the package got either nothing, or a prescription drug card that turned out to be worthless. Consumers did not get refunds.
• Steven Breitling/ICS Financial Firm used phony loan offers to bilk consumers out of $75 each. Consumers received a direct mailing from ICS Financial "guaranteeing" them a loan of between $2,000 and $5,000. Those who responded were contacted by telemarketers, who told them that to get their loan they first had to pay a $75 consulting fee and sign a contract. Consumers who paid the fee never received any loans, and many never heard from the company again, according to the complaint.
• City West Advantage, Inc. d/b/a Unified Services allegedly duped consumers into disclosing their bank account information, and then charged them about $149 without their permission. City West called consumers and told them they had won a $1,000 shopping spree or other "free gift," and that the bank account information they provided would be used to charge them $1.95 for shipping and handling. Consumers who hesitated were called back repeatedly and harassed by telemarketers, even after consumers asked them to stop calling. Consumers who provided their financial information were charged approximately $149 without their consent.
• Direct Connection Consulting, Inc., et al. allegedly billed consumers for products they never agreed to buy after bombarding them with a confusing sales pitch over the phone. The company contacted consumers with promises of free gift cards, gas cards, or free resort vacations. The telemarketers often read their pitch so fast that consumers didn't understand or realize they were agreeing to pay for products or services. Consumers who understood the pitch were told that they would not be billed, since they did not provide their billing information. However, although consumers did not know it, the telemarketers already had their billing information and charged their credit cards or debited their bank accounts, without providing the "free" goods or the services they promised.
The four settlements against 16 defendants contain judgments totaling more than $27.6 million, although the courts have suspended large portions due to the defendants' inability to pay. Each of the settlements includes provisions that bar the defendants from further deceiving consumers and restrict the way they do business in the future.
In the case of Direct Connection Consulting, Inc., the settlement order also bans JoAnn R. "Jody" Winter, the co-owner and officer of the corporate defendants, from telemarketing of any kind. All the other defendants in this case settled the FTC's charges in March 2009.