The FBI and federal prosecutors say organized crime was behind a telephone "cramming" racket that bilked consumers out of more than $200 million over the last five years by piggybacking bogus charges onto local phone bills.
Two alleged Gambino crime-family members are among those charged with racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering and other crimes, which prosecutors say generated $50,000 to $600,000 per day from 1997 to 2001, netting more than $100 million in profits.
The scam victimized consumers who responded to television, Internet and newspaper ads for free samples of dating services, adult chat lines and psychic consultants. Once the Mob got their number, consumers were charged as much as $40 a month on their phone bills for services they didn't order and never used, prosecutors said. The phony services were described as "voice mail" and other innocuous terms that most consumers never noticed.
The practice of billing consumers through their phone bills for services they didn't order is called "cramming." It's a common problem but this is the first time prosecutors have linked it to the Mob.
"These defendants conspired to defraud consumers by using a sophisticated web of shell companies to generate one of the largest consumer-fraud schemes in United States history," Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said in a prepared statement. Prosecutors say the scam was the Gambino family's biggest single source of revenue.
The number of people victimized by the scheme isn't known but authorities said it numbers in the millions. A few consumers complained and got their money back, but most did not.
The indictment also names an Overland Park, Kan., company, USP&C, which processed the charges through its agreements with local telephone companies such as PacBell, Southwestern Bell and Verizon (formerly Bell Atlantic), which entitled the company to insert a page into victims' monthly bills to collect for service providers, officials said.
Many of those named in the 20-count indictment are also facing charges ini a $230 million Internet pornography scheme.
The lead defendant in both cases, Salvatore "Tore" Locascio, 44, known as Tore, is identified in the indictment as a Gambino family captain. Also charged is Zef Mustapha, 42, allegedly a high-level associate.