Amazon made $70M unlawfully from kids, FTC said. Are you due a refund?

Online retailer Amazon, accused of unlawfully billing parents for more than $70 million in purchases by game-playing kids, has settled a case with federal regulators. Refunds are available.

The deadline for submitting refund requests is May 28, 2018, the Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday.

The charges in question took place between November 2011 and May 2016, officials said.

Amazon has offered many children’s apps for download to mobile devices such as the Kindle Fire, the FTC noted.  Children playing games such as “Ice Age Village” could spend unlimited amounts of money to pay for virtual items such as “coins,” “stars,” and “acorns” without sufficient parental consent, federal officials said in a 2014 complaint.

“Even Amazon’s own employees recognized the serious problem its process created,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in 2014.

Last month the FTC and Amazon agreed to end their litigation.

An Amazon spokesman said Tuesday, “Since the launch of the Appstore in 2011, Amazon has helped parents prevent purchases made without their permission by offering access to parental controls, clear notice of in-app purchasing, real-time notification for every in-app purchase and refund assistance for unauthorized purchases. The Court here affirmed our commitment to customers when it ruled no changes to current Appstore practices were required.”

The company spokesman continued, “To continue ensuring a great customer experience, we are happy to provide our customers what we have always provided: refunds for purchases they did not approve. We have contacted all eligible customers who have not already received a refund for unauthorized charges to help ensure their refunds are confirmed quickly.”

The FTC said refund requests can be completed online at https://www.amazon.com/gp/mas/refund-orders/in-apprefund. Customers can go to their Amazon.com accounts and go to the Message Center to find information about requesting a refund under Important Messages. Questions about individual refunds should be directed to Amazon at 866-216-1072, the FTC said.

Student loan scam based in Lake Worth, Delray, Boca shut down

The FTC filed federal charges against a student loan debt relief company that it alleges lied to consumers and charged illegal upfront fees.

A federal court has shut down an  alleged phony student loan debt relief and credit repair scheme that operated from Lake Worth, Delray Beach, Boca Raton and Las Vegas.

The Federal Trade Commission said Thursday it charged the operators  with bilking millions of dollars from consumers by falsely promising to reduce or eliminate their student loan debt and offering them non-existent credit repair services.

Dave Green, 41, the owner of Strategic Student Solutions and related entities, used corporate funds to pay for personal expenses such as jewelry, casino tabs, mortgage payments, luxury vehicles, clothing, and construction of a pool, the FTC said.

At the FTC’s request, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in West Palm Beach has temporarily halted the operation. The agency seeks to permanently stop the alleged illegal practices and obtain refunds for consumers.

“Consumers who paid Strategic Student Solutions for help with their student loans watched their situations go from bad to worse,” said Tom Pahl, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The bottom line: never pay an up-front fee to a company promising to deliver debt relief.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, the operators of Strategic Student Solutions and related companies lured student loan borrowers with promises such as “Payments as low as $0 Monthly” or “Save 60 percent or MORE on your monthly payment.”

SSS operators told the student loan borrowers they would be enrolled in a loan forgiveness or payment reduction program, and that their monthly payments would be applied to their loans, the complaint states.

However, in many cases, consumers discovered that the defendants failed to enroll them in any loan forgiveness or payment reduction programs, and found out that none of their monthly payments were applied to their student loan debt.

In its complaint, the FTC also alleges that SSS operators falsely represented that they would provide credit repair services and improve consumers’ credit scores. In exchange for the promised debt relief and credit repair services, defendants charged illegal upfront fees of up to $1200 and monthly payments typically of $49.99.

The defendants named in the complaint, Green and his companies—Strategic Student Solutions LLC, Strategic Credit Solutions LLC, Strategic Debt Solutions LLC, Strategic Doc Prep Solutions LLC, Student Relief Center LLC, and Credit Relief Center LLC—are charged with violating the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Credit Repair Organizations Act.

The FTC  said it appreciates the assistance provided by the Ohio Office of the Attorney General, the Florida Office of the Attorney General, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Washington Office of the Attorney General in bringing this case.

To help make consumers aware of fraudulent debt relief services, the FTC offers advice about student loan debt relief, in English and Spanish. The FTC also offers a list of every company and person courts have banned from selling debt relief services as a result of FTC actions.

Consumers seeking to reduce their student loans should always contact the Department of Education for official guidance.

Fake number for medical care rips off veterans, feds say

A bogus phone number very close to the real one is a scam targeting veterans who are seeking medical care, federal officials said Monday.

The real number for the Veterans Choice Program is 866-606-8198. The program allows eligible vets to use approved health care providers outside of the Veterans Affairs system.

“Here’s the problem,” says an advisory from the Federal Trade Commission. “Scammers have set up a phony telephone line that very closely resembles the VCP’s real telephone number. Con artists often use names, seals, and logos that look or sound like those of respected, legitimate organizations. This time they’re using a phone number that’s almost identical to the real thing, counting on creating confusion.”

People call and think they have reached the real number.

“The fake line’s message says you’re entitled to a rebate if you provide a credit card number,” says FTC attorney Carol Kando-Pineda. “But if you give up your account information, they’ll debit your account and you’ll get nothing in return.  There is no rebate and you’ll need to cancel your credit card.”

The real program won’t ask for your credit card number over the phone, officials say.

You can check the website for the real Veterans Choice program  here:

https://www.va.gov/opa/toolkit/index.asp

 

 

Boynton firm named lead defendant in state ‘scammer’ crackdown

A Boynton Beach company is a leading target of a stepped-up crackdown on tech support schemes, which Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi characterized Friday as a “trick” to separate consumers from millions of dollars — all to solve problems that never existed.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi

“Tech support scams prey on people’s fear of losing important work, family photos or sensitive identification information,” Bondi said. “Using that fear, scammers trick thousands of consumers in to paying millions of dollars to fix problems that never existed. These scams will not be tolerated in Florida and that is why we are bringing more cases against more tech support scammers than any other state in the country—to protect consumers and recover money for victims.”

GoReady Calls Marketing LLC and principals Adam Lennox and Evan Keen are named in a suit Bondi’s office filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court under the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.

A call to the company was not immediately returned Friday.

Consumers are targeted using pop-up ads disguised as computer virus alerts that tell consumers to call a number for help, state officials said. The number connects callers to a sales agent at a call center who “confirms” the computer is infected and in need of services or software, according to the suit.

The services are “unneccessary and costly,” state officials said.

An example of a pop-up warning that state officials say is part of a tech-support scheme.

In one example of tactics firms use, a pop-up warning in red urged consumers to call a number to “STOP Deleting Hard Drive,” complete with a “meaningless error code,” according to the suit.

The suit seeks a permanent injunction to prevent further violations, restitution for consumers and civil penalties of $10,000 per violation, or $15,000 for victimized senior citizens.

Bondi’s office said it was the 12th such action against tech-support firms, leading the nation. Additional suits targeted other firms around Florida and state officials joined with the Federal Trade Commission in the crackdown.

The state’s full release is here:

Attorney General Bondi Continues Efforts to Shut Down Tech Scams

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Attorney General Pam Bondi today announced the filing of three complaints, including one filed jointly with the Federal Trade Commission, against companies allegedly involved in the operation of tech support scams. Tech support scams trick consumers into believing their computers are infected with viruses and malware in an effort to bilk users out of hundreds of dollars.

“Tech support scams prey on people’s fear of losing important work, family photos or sensitive identification information. Using that fear, scammers trick thousands of consumers in to paying millions of dollars to fix problems that never existed,” said Attorney General Bondi. “These scams will not be tolerated in Florida and that is why we are bringing more cases against more tech support scammers than any other state in the country—to protect consumers and recover money for victims.”

These recent scams all involve similar tactics targeting consumers by using pop-up ads disguised as computer virus alerts that instruct consumers to call a number for help. This number connects callers to a sales agent at a call center who allegedly confirms the computer is infected and in need of services. The scammers exploit consumers’ fears about computer viruses, malware, hackers and other security threats, to ultimately convince them to purchase unnecessary and costly technical support services or software products.

Attorney General Bondi’s Office alleges that the following companies are in violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act:

  • GoReadyCalls Marketing, LLC, A.E.A. Worldwide, LLC, Capital Investments, LLC, Cutting Edge Outlook, LLC, Kradanomic Solutions, LLC, Secure It Digital Solutions, LLC, Software Pros, LLC, Teamkeen, LLC, Us Software Experts, LLC, Us Software Pros, LLC, Wizard Tech Solutions, LLC, Adam Lennox, Evan Keen;
  • Learn More Media, Inc. and Elesha Aflalo; and
  • Vylah Tec LLC d/b/a Vtec Support, Express Tech Help LLC, Tech Crew Support LLC, Angelo Cupo, Dennis Cupo and Robert Cupo.

Each complaint orders the freezing of assets, seeks immediate access to the business premises and the appointment of a receiver. The complaints filed against Learn More Media Inc., GoReadyCalls Marketing, LLC and related entities and individuals, also seek preliminary and permanent injunctions, full consumer restitution, disgorgement of ill-gotten monies and attorneys’ fees and costs.

Attorney General Bondi’s Office and the Federal Trade Commission jointly filed the complaint against Vtec Support in the Middle District of Florida. Today, Attorney General Bondi joined representatives from the Federal Trade Commission in Tampa to announce a major national and international crackdown on tech support scams. To learn more about this multiagency law enforcement sweep, click here.

To view the three complaints filed by Attorney General Bondi’s Office click here, here and here.

Since November 2014, Attorney General Bondi’s Office has filed 12 actions against tech support scam operations, leading the nation in shutting down these bad actors.

Anyone who suspects unfair or deceptive business practices can file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office online at MyFloridaLegal.com or call (866) 9-NO-SCAM.

 

Nintendo Switch emulator: Avoid like Bob-omb. It’s a scam, feds say

Don’t slip on this banana peel, federal officials say — there is no Nintendo Switch “emulator” to run Switch games on your desktop.

Bob-omb

“It’s a scam,” says the Federal Trade Commission.

Online ads may come with Nintendo branding, but when you try to download an emulator, it can install nasty things like phony computer problems and a pitch to get you to pay to fix it, officials say.

Also, don’t fill out a survey that you must complete to get a code to unlock the emulator. It’s fake, according to the FTC.

If you find a scam, report it to the FTC.

“Play Nintendo Switch at your friend’s house until you’re able to buy the real one yourself,” an FTC advisory says.

 

Robocall scheme that sold Bahamas cruises is in permanent dry dock

Just hang up if you receive a robocall.
Just hang up if you receive a robocall.

An illegal robocalling scheme that bombarded consumers with 12 million to 15 million robocalls a day using political surveys to sell Florida cruise line vacations to the Bahamas has reached its final chapter.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the Federal Trade Commission and nine other state attorneys general Tuesday announced the entry of the last consent judgment shutting down the illegal scheme.

The unlawful telemarketing campaign flooded consumers from across the country with billions of unwanted robocalls and generated millions of dollars for the companies.

The fifth and final consent judgment announced Tuesday bars owner Fred Accuardi and his companies from assisting or participating in actions that violate telemarketing laws.

In 2015,  Bondi, in partnership with the FTC and other state attorneys general, filed a lawsuit against Caribbean Cruise Line, Inc., a marketing company, as well as seven other companies, for alleged involvement in a scheme that used political survey robocalls to illegally sell cruise vacations. The joint complaint was filed in the U.S.  District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Fort Lauderdale.

Consumers who answered these calls typically heard a pre-recorded message telling them they had been selected to participate in a 30-second research survey, after which they would receive a “free” two-day cruise to the Bahamas.

In reality the calls were designed to market Caribbean Cruise Line’s cruises and various up-sell packages, the FTC said.

The complaint alleged that the defendants’ robocalls violated both Florida and federal law by unlawfully using political surveys as a pretext to place sales calls pitching Bahamas cruises and related vacation packages to individuals on do-not-call lists and other individuals they were prohibited from calling.

Accuardi and his companies allegedly assisted and facilitated the illegal calls by providing robocallers with hundreds of telephone numbers. The defendants also allegedly made it possible for robocallers to change their caller identification information, funded a portion of the robocalling campaigns, and hid the robocallers’ identities from authorities.

In addition to barring Accuardi and his businesses from illegal telemarketing, the consent judgment  imposes a judgment of $1.35 million, which will be suspended after the defendants pay $2,500. If the court finds that the defendants misrepresented their financial condition, the entire judgment will become due.

Florida and the FTC led the joint action and were joined by attorneys general in  Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington.

The robocall campaign ran from October 2011 through July 2012.

To view the consent judgment, click here.

To view the order approving the consent judgment, click here.

 

FTC settles with accused Florida collector on India scam calls

Federal officials announced a settlement Wednesday with a Florida company accused of using “runners” to pick up money at Western Union or MoneyGram locations throughout the state in connection with scam calls from India.

Callers pretended to be from a host of agencies including the IRS collecting debts, or officials collecting a fee to pick up a “free”government grant, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

FTC HQPHLG Enterprises in Palm Harbor, Fla. and managing member Joel S. Treuhaft  helped collect more than $1.5 million from about 3,000 people in 2015 and 2016, according to the FTC.

PHLG and Treuhaft admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, but are permanently enjoined from receiving or facilitating payment for goods or services offered or sold through telemarketing, among other restrictions. Attempts to reach defendants’ attorneys were not immediately successful.

“Some runners lied to store employees to retrieve a consumer’s money, including saying they were the consumer’s friends or relatives,” an FTC statement said. “The runners went to various stores every day, for eight to 10 hours per day, to collect consumers’ money. The defendants and their runners kept a portion of the money and delivered the rest to the India-based scammers through a complex series of transactions designed to avoid detection by law enforcement.”

The settlement “imposes a $1.5 million judgment that will be suspended based on the defendants’ inability to pay,” according to the FTC. “The full judgment will become due immediately if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.”

 

Vizio agrees to stop snooping on TV viewing without OK

That smart TV you invited into your living room may be taking down everything you watch and telling other folks about it, without informing you or asking your OK, a federal agency warns.

One of the largest sellers of “smart” or Internet-connected TVs, Vizio Inc., has agreed to stop spying on the viewing habits of users and sharing it with partners without the knowledge and permission of consumers, federal officials announced Monday.

vizio-smart-tvSoftware on its TVs allowed Irvine, Cal.-based Vizio to collect viewing data on 11 million consumer TVs, the Federal Trade Commission said. The data on what people watched, second to second, was packaged with other demographic information relating to sex, age, income, marital status, household size, education level, home ownership, and household value, according to federal officials.

In a statement, the company said it was “pleased” to reach a resolution.

“Going forward, this resolution sets a new standard for best industry privacy practices for the collection and analysis of data collected from today’s internet-connected televisions and other home devices,” said Jerry Huang, Vizio general counsel.

He said the program “never paired viewing data with personally identifiable information such as name or contact information, and the Commission did not allege or contend otherwise.  Instead, as the Complaint notes, the practices challenged by the government related only to the use of viewing data in the ‘aggregate’ to create summary reports measuring viewing audiences or behaviors.”

He continued, “Today, the FTC has made clear that all smart TV makers should get people’s consent before collecting and sharing television viewing information and Vizio now is leading the way.”

A federal court order requires the company to “prominently disclose and obtain affirmative express consent for its data collection and sharing practices, and prohibits misrepresentations about the privacy, security, or confidentiality of consumer information they collect,” an FTC statement said. “It also requires the company to delete data collected before March 1, 2016, and to implement a comprehensive data privacy program and biennial assessments of that program.”

Vizio agreed to pay $2.2 million as part of  the settlement.

 

 

FTC: Western Union knew its agents were committing fraud, agrees to return $586 million to fraud victims

Western Union has admitted to criminal violations and abetting wire fraud, the FTC said Thursday.
Western Union has admitted to criminal violations and abetting wire fraud, the FTC said Thursday.

 

Western Union has known for years that scammers were using its system to commit significant fraud. Even when faced with clear evidence that many of its agents were committing fraud, Western Union kept taking people’s money, probably billions in fraud-related transfers, sent since January 2004, the Federal Trade Commission said Thursday.

But Thursday, in a global settlement with the FTC and the US Department of Justice, Western Union agreed to return $586 million to people and create a real and strong anti-fraud program.

Western Union did nothing to guard against fraud and looked the other way as criminals and scammers used its system to defraud consumers of billions of dollars, the FTC said.

The global company has agreed to enter into agreements with the FTC, the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices of the Southern District of Florida, the Middle  and Eastern Districts of Pennsylvania, and the Central District of California.

 In its agreement with the Justice Department, Western Union admits to criminal violations including willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program and aiding and abetting wire fraud.

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer of the Southern District of Florida, said, “Western Union, the largest money service business in the world, has admitted to a flawed corporate culture that failed to provide a checks and balances approach to combat criminal practices.”

“Western Union’s failure to implement proper controls and discipline agents that violated compliances policies enabled the proliferation of illegal gambling, money laundering and fraud-related schemes. Western Union’s conduct resulted in the processing of hundreds of millions of dollars in prohibited transactions. Today’s historic agreement, involving the largest financial forfeiture by a money service business, makes it clear that all corporations and their agents will be held accountable for conduct that circumvents compliance programs designed to prevent criminal conduct,” Ferrer said.

Western Union has been on notice since at least December 1997, that individuals use its money transfer system to send illegal gambling transactions from Florida to offshore sportsbooks, the FTC said.

Western Union knew that gambling transactions presented a heightened risk of money laundering and that through at least 2012, certain procedures it implemented were not effective at limiting transactions with characteristics indicative of illegal gaming from the United States to other countries.

FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said, “Western Union owes a responsibility to American consumers to guard against fraud, but instead the company looked the other way, and its system facilitated scammers and rip-offs. The agreements we are announcing today will ensure Western Union changes the way it conducts its business and provides more than a half billion dollars for refunds to consumers who were harmed by the company’s unlawful behavior.”
The FTC’s complaint, filed Thursday in Pennsylvania,  alleges that Western Union declined to put in place effective anti-fraud policies and procedures and has failed to act promptly against problem agents.

Western Union has identified many of the problem agents but has profited from their actions by not promptly suspending and terminating them.

In resolving the FTC charges, Western Union agreed to a monetary judgment of $586 million and to implement and maintain a comprehensive anti-fraud program with training for its agents and their front line associates, monitoring to detect and prevent fraud-induced money transfers, due diligence on all new and renewing company agents, and suspension or termination of noncompliant agents.

The FTC order prohibits Western Union from transmitting a money transfer that it knows or reasonably should know is fraud-induced, and requires it to:

  • block money transfers sent to any person who is the subject of a fraud report;
  • provide clear and conspicuous consumer fraud warnings on its paper and electronic money transfer forms;
  • increase the availability of websites and telephone numbers that enable consumers to file fraud complaints; and
  • refund a fraudulently induced money transfer if the company failed to comply with its anti-fraud procedures in connection with that transaction.

In addition, consistent with the telemarketing sales rule, Western Union must not process a money transfer that it knows or should know is payment for a telemarketing transaction.  The company’s compliance with the order will be monitored for three years by an independent compliance auditor.

Boynton Beach operation blasted billions of illegal robocalls, FTC says

Just hang up if you receive a robocall.
The FTC has taken action against an alleged robocall operation based in Boynton Beach.

The Federal Trade Commission Friday announced a crackdown on two massive robocall telemarketing operations, one of which was headquartered in Boynton Beach.

Both have been blasting robocalls to billions of  consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry since at least 2012, the FTC said.

The FTC complaint was filed this week in federal court in West Palm Beach  against Justin Ramsey, Brian Offner, Christopher Herghelegiu and their companies Data Guri LLC, Tailbone Security LLC, both based in Boynton Beach, Leading Apex in Pennsylvania and Prime Marketing, Boca Raton.

The other case was filed against Aaron Michael Jones in Orange County, California.

The two ringleaders of the operations— Ramsey, who lived in Boca Raton, according to state records,  and  Jones—have previously been sued by state attorneys general for telemarketing violations and the FTC’s litigation against them continues, the FTC said.

According to the FTC’s complaint in the Ramsey action, the defendants illegally blasted millions of robocalls in 2012 and 2013 to consumers on the DNC Registry selling home security systems or generating leads for home security installation companies. In just one week in July 2012, the defendants allegedly made more than 1.3 million illegal calls to consumers nationwide, 80 percent of which were to numbers listed on the DNC Registry.

The FTC alleges that Ramsey continues to violate the Telemarketing Sales Rule.  For example, in April and May of 2016, the FTC alleges that he and his company, Prime Marketing LLC, placed at least 800,000 calls to numbers listed on the Do Not Call Registry.

Two of Ramsey’s former business partners and their three companies have agreed to settle. In addition to the bans on robocalling, DNC and TSR violations, the court orders impose a $1.4 million judgment, which is suspended based on the defendants’ inability to pay. The full amount will become due if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

Many of the defendants in the two cases, FTC v. Justin Ramsey and FTC v. Aaron Michael Jones, have agreed to court orders that permanently ban them from making robocalls, making any calls to numbers listed on the Do Not Call Registry, violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule and/or assisting others in doing so. The settling defendants also will pay the Commission a total of more than $500,000.

“The law is clear about robocalls — if a telemarketer doesn’t have consumers’ written permission, it’s illegal to make these calls,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC will continue working hard to put a stop to telemarketers who ignore the law.”