Refunds checks of more than $668,000 are on the way, U.S. officials said this week, in the wake of federal and state action against what they called a tech-support scam in Boynton Beach.
Big Dog Solutions LLC, also doing business as Help Desk National and Help Desk Global, and affiliated firms and individuals were accused of tricking people into thinking they had malware, viruses or other computer problems and selling them software and services to “fix” dubious or non-existent problems.
The Federal Trade Commission said it will send 3,791 checks averaging about $176 to victims. Got questions about the refunds? Contact Rust Consulting Inc. at 1-877-309-1959.
More than $6.4 billion in refunds for consumers flowed from FTC actions in the year ended last June, the agency said.
Tech support schemes, many with call rooms in Palm Beach County, have left a trail of complaints, enforcement actions and settlements with federal officials and the Florida Attorney General’s Office over several years. Operations in several other states and foreign countries also have been targeted in the crackdown.
As part of the resolution of this case, defendants agreed to turn over more than $700,000 in assets and were banned from providing tech support products or services and prohibited from deceptive telemarketing practices, officials said.
“Scammers like these use incredibly deceptive tactics that make consumers think they are receiving warnings from legitimate technology companies” such as Microsoft and Apple, Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in 2016. “We are proud to work with the Florida Attorney General’s Office to put an end to these fraudulent practices.”
Defendants in the case included BigDog Solutions LLC (doing business as Help Desk National and Help Desk Global); PC Help Desk US LLC (doing business as Help Desk National and Help Desk Global); Inbound Call Specialist LLC; BlackOpteck CE Inc.; 9138242 Canada Corporation; Digital Growth Properties, LLC; Christopher J. Costanza (doing business as CJM Consulting, LLC); Suzanne W. Harris; Muzaffar Abbas; Gary Oberman; Donald Dolphin and Justin Powers.
The refund checks expire after 60 days, so don’t delay too long in cashing them. The FTC issued a reminder that it never requires consumers to pay money or provide account information to cash a refund check.
Update: Asked for comment, defense attorney Ruben E. Socarrasof Boca Raton said by email, “We do not have authority to comment or provide a statement at this time but we can tell you that the Court record/filings speak for themselves with respect to the outcome of the case.”
Don’t fall for someone pretending to be from the Federal Trade Commission who is sending out fake emails telling people that their Do Not Call registration is expiring, federal officials are warning.
“The emails use the FTC’s logo and send people to a phony Do Not Call website to register their numbers again,” a statement from the FTC said.
If you’ve never signed up for the Do Not Call registry but want to do so, you can add your phone number at donotcall.gov or call 1-888-382-1222 from the phone you want to register.
The point of the list is to avoid unsolicited sales calls, though scammers who hide behind phony “spoofed” numbers and sometimes operate from overseas do not always observe it. You can also consider a variety of phone apps and other options.
We’re talking scams that go back up to 14 years, generating more than 550,000 complaints about money transfers related to fees to collect fake lottery prizes, phony family emergencies, fraudulent online romance and more. Western Union knew from reports inside and outside the company that such frauds were occurring, and the reports in some cases implicated its own agents, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Western Union said in a statement last year, “We share the government’s goal of protecting consumers and the integrity of our global money transfer network, and we worked hard to resolve these matters with the government.” The company added: “We are committed to enhancing our compliance programs to prevent illicit activity on our network and protect customers who transfer money to friends, family and businesses.”
Consumers have until Feb. 12 to file claims for refunds for fraudulent payments made via Western Union between Jan. 1, 2004 and Jan. 17, 2017.
The FTC felt obligated to add this warning: Don’t pay anything to file a claim for your refund. That’s a sure sign you are not dealing with the right people. In other words, don’t get scammed in your attempt to get a scam refund.
“The U.S. Department of Justice is managing the claims process through the company they hired, Gilardi & Co.,” a Federal Trade Commission statement said Tuesday. “Your claim will go to Gilardi, but we suggest you start at FTC.gov/WU, which will link you to the claims website.”
Not using an app? Get rid of it, the Federal Trade Commission advises.
Using your social media account to log into an app or website can be easier than creating a new user name and password. But, after a while, you can collect more apps and become registered on more websites than you really use. This can leave you open to cyberattacks, phishing, and scams, the FTC said.
When you use social media accounts to sign up for apps or websites, you may give the app or website permission to do things on your behalf, like post to your social media page. You’re also possibly saying it’s OK to access information like your name, birthdate, location, contacts, and even your messages. Over time, you may even forget which apps or sites have these permissions.
Here’s how to help ensure you’re not granting permissions to sites and apps you no longer want to have this access:
Ask yourself: “Why do they need this info?” When signing up for an app or website, pay attention to what permissions it’s asking for. If you’re not comfortable allowing access, select “deny “or “disagree” when you see the message asking for permissions. This typically stops the registration process.
Purge your permissions list. Go to the settings on your social media site and follow the instructions that lead you to the list of sites and apps to which you’re granting access. Follow the instructions that tell you how to remove those apps or sites, click on one at a time and select the option that allows you to remove it.
Make it a habit. Set a reminder on your calendar for at least every few months to check your permissions.
A federal and state crackdown dubbed Operation Game of Loans has targeted companies — including two in Palm Beach County — accused of collecting more than $95 million in student debt-relief scams.
“Winter is coming for debt relief scams that prey on hardworking Americans struggling to pay back their student loans,” said Maureen K. Ohlhausen, acting chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. “The FTC is proud to work with state partners to protect consumers from these scams, help them learn how to spot a scam, and let them know where to go for legitimate help.”
Student loans represent a huge business, second only to mortgages by some measures, with outstanding balances of more than $1.4 trillion affecting more than 42 million Americans, officials said. But a shadowy community preying on beleaguered borrowers has proved to be dark and full of financial terrors for many, investigators said.
The FTC said the crackdown involves 11 states and 36 legal actions.
Strategic Student Solutions LLC, based at various times in three different cities in Palm Beach County, represented to borrowers that if they made three payments ranging from $166 to $233, their loan burden would be reduced or even forgiven completely under “Obama’s Student Loan Forgiveness Plan,” a state complaint said.
Students later learned lenders had never heard of the company and their loans were unaffected, records show.
An FTC complaint filed under seal sought a court injunction. Officials said the company collected more than $11 million in fees from consumers.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Office received more than 200 complaints regarding the scheme. The attorney general’s office is seeking a court order to halt the company’s business operations and secure restitution and fines for alleged violation of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practice Act.
Strategic Student Solutions has been located in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, and Lake Worth, though in early 2017 control was transferred to a company in Las Vegas, according to a state complaint.
State records have listed a Delray Beach address for company principal Dave Green. Attempts to reach him for comment were not successful.
Officials also reached a settlement with a Boynton Beach company also accused of taking advance fees and failing to deliver on promises of reducing or eliminating student debt.
Debt Relief Pros Inc., doing business as Student Debt Relief, and owner Christopher Wordell did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to permanently stop offering such services in Florida and pay $12,000 restitution and attorney’s fees, state record show. Wordell, who could not be reached, signed a notarized agreement in Massachusetts.
Other actions have involved companies in Miami and Wesley Chapel.
A California firm claimed to represent the Department of Education, FTC officials said, but A1 DocPrep CEO Homan Ardalan spent hundreds of thousands of consumers’ dollars on cars, jewelry, nightclubs, and restaurants.
How do you protect yourself? Student borrowers should be very suspicious about requests to pay an up-front fee for help, federal officials advised.
Consumers can apply for loan deferments, forbearance, repayment and forgiveness or discharge programs directly through the U.S. Department of Education or their loan servicer at no cost, and these programs do not require the assistance of a third party or application fees, officials said.
For private student loans, contact the loan servicer directly.
That’s not the full amount consumers paid but what state and federal officials were able to seize for refunds, so a release describes the refunds as “partial.”
The FTC alleges that for years, a spate of such schemes have scared people into buying worthless software and support, sometimes for hundreds of dollars apiece, to “fix” non-existent computer viruses and malware. Palm Beach County has been home to several companies that employ various forms of advertising, computer pop-ups and telemarketing, often aimed at seniors.
The email will have a claim number and a PIN that will give you access to apply for a refund, officials said. If you get an email, follow the instructions and respond by Oct. 27.
Still a little confused and wary? That’s understandable in this case. You can avoid clicking the link in the email and start the claims process at ftc.gov/TechSupport or call the refund administrator at 877-793-0908, federal officials say.
The refund applies to eligible consumers who bought tech support products and services between April 2012 and November 2014. Again: the deadline to apply is Oct. 27, 2017.
The FTC filed a complaint in April against Daniel L. Croft, doing business as PC Guru Tech Support and Elite Tech Support. Federal officials alleged he contacted consumers by email and used fake FTC press releases and the names of real agency staff members to trick consumers into contacting him so he could try to sell them unnecessary tech support services.
“The so-called ‘Federal Trade Commission Report’ is designed to look like a press release issued by the FTC and includes the FTC’s seal and motto, and even lists two FTC attorneys who work in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection,” the FTC’s complaint noted.
But the report was completely “bogus,” the complaint said.
Federal officials obtained a default judgment. An order issued July 20 by U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks in West Palm Beach imposes a fine and permanent injunction. Attempts to reach Croft for comment were not successful. There is no defense attorney listed in court records.
1. Jail threats are a red flag. “If a debt collector threatens you with jail time, hang up the phone. They’re violating the law and you should report them to us,” the FTC says.
2. Ask for it in writing. Ask for a written “validation notice” that includes the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor and your rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the FTC advises. Tell the caller you refuse to discuss the debt without this. Stop talking and do not give further information that can be used for identify theft or other purposes.
3. Ask the caller for his name, company, street address, and telephone number. “If a caller refuses to give you all of this information, do not pay!” the FTC says. “Paying a fake debt collector will not always make them go away. They may make up another debt to try to get more money from you.”
Among other precautions: If the debt may be legitimate but you suspect the caller is not, check independently with the original creditor.
But in many cases debts are just made up, federal officials said.
Many consumers pay by credit card or other means over the phone “because they are afraid of the threatened repercussions of failing to pay,” unsure if the callers might be legitimate or just wanting to make the harassment go away, FTC officials wrote in a complaint against Orlando-based defendants.
The complaint named Hardco Holding Group LLC, S & H Financial Group, Daryl M. Hall and Dequan M. Sicard. Attorneys representing them were not listed on a July 10 temporary restraining order and attempts to reach defendants were not successful.
Regency Financial Services and principal Ivan Levy perpetrated a “vehicle loan assistance relief services scam,” the FTC charged. Websites promised beleaguered drivers could “lower your payments as much as 50% regardless of your credit score” and claimed consumers saved an average of $293 per month, according to an FTC complaint.
Instead customers paid up-front fees, often $499 in a lump sum or installments, relying on promises the company would prevent creditors from repossessing their vehicles and substantially reduce their interest rate, officials said. Regency typically provided “valueless referrals and advice,” according to the complaint alleging unfair or deceptive trade practices.
The FTC said it is mailing 288 checks totaling more than $109,000 to people who paid an up-front fee. Average amount: $380.
A settlement that produced the money also banned the defendants from telemarketing and selling debt relief products or services. Attempts to seek comment from defendants through an attorney were not successful.
Affected consumers should deposit or cash checks within 60 days, federal officials said, and if they have questions, they should contact the FTC’s refund administrator, Rust Consulting Inc., at 866-591-7249.