Game of Loans: Boynton, Lake Worth firms accused in student-debt scams

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.”

Lena Headey in Game of Thrones. Credit HBO

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.

For federal student loan repayment options, visit StudentAid.gov/repay, the FTC said.

 

EpiPen maker settles suit for $456 million, $9 million to Florida

Mylan Inc. settled allegations for $465 million it knowingly underpaid rebates owed to the Medicaid program for EpiPen products, officials said Friday.

Florida’s share is more than $9 million, Attorney General Pam Bondi said about the settlement that includes the federal government and states.

The products involve injections containing epinephrine, a chemical that narrows blood vessels and opens airways in the lungs. These effects can reverse severe or sometimes life-threatening conditions including low blood pressure, wheezing, severe skin itching, hives and other symptoms of an allergic reaction.

EpiPen’s makers have been under fire for price increases of more than 450 percent for medicines that children and others need.

The settlement arises from False Claims Act litigation involving, among other parties,  Ven-a-Care of the Florida Keys Inc.

 

You due? Avis, Budget pay refunds in $1 million-plus Florida toll flap

Ask not for whom the refund bell tolls. It tolls for thee, eligible drivers of Avis, Budget and Payless rentals who paid certain toll-related fees in Florida.

More than $1 million in refunds have already been paid, and more could be due under a settlement announced by Florida officials this week.

Drivers wrongly charged for certain toll-related fees between Jan. 1, 2010 and July 10, 2017 can apply for refunds by Jan. 7, 2018.

The Florida Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday it investigated allegations Avis Budget Car System LLC did not sufficiently disclose a daily $3.95 fee for the companies’ e-Toll service, in addition to any actual tolls paid by the consumer.

An attempt to seek comment from Avis was not immediately successful.

Many drivers were unaware of the fee or how to avoid it, only to get a bill for it four to six weeks later, state officials said.

The fees were charged as a means to pay for cashless tolls, but consumers can avoid these if driving on routes without tolls or on those that accept cash.

Under the settlement, Avis and related companies must clearly disclose relevant fees and train employees not to tell consumers the only way to pay is through their e-Toll system.

In addition, the companies are required to disclose fully the cost of any damage waivers and cannot charge for these if the consumer has declined coverage.

And there’s more: The companies may not charge consumers for a higher car class when the car class reserved by a consumer is unavailable, and the daily cost of upgrades must be clearly disclosed, state officials said.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Fast Fix 123: Ban PB Co. tech ‘scam’ execs for good, Fla. AG says

Florida’s Attorney General said Tuesday she wants a permanent order barring executives at a “scam” company operating in West Palm Beach and Boynton Beach from working in tech support again.

On the same day, federal officials warned another tech-support company previously shut down has tried to reach customers again to offer resumed service or phony refunds.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has activated the state's price gouging hotline.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi 

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a complaint in Palm Beach County Circuit Court against Fast Fix 123 LLC and Paul Cozzolino, Tyler Foss and Dennis Rinker. Attempts to reach them were not successful. A company number has been disconnected.

“This scam was designed to trick consumers, some of them seniors, into believing their computers were severely compromised and scare them into buying unnecessary protection software,”  Bondi said in a statement. “With today’s action, we are seeking to shut down this tech support scam and acquire relief for the victims.”

The complaint seeks civil penalties and seeks defendants to be “permanently enjoined from advertising, marketing, promoting, providing, rendering, selling, soliciting, engaging in or accepting payment for any tech support services.”

It is the ninth action taken by Bondi’s office against tech support firms since late 2014, marking the most by any state, according to her office. Palm Beach County has been a hotbed for call centers used in the scheme, though many have closed their doors months or years ahead of enforcement actions like this one.

But the operators don’t always go away for good. Also on Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission warned consumers are getting calls offering “refunds” or resuming service on behalf of a tech-support company previously shut down called Global Connect, accused of deceptive practices in a Missouri case.

“Don’t do it,” the FTC warned. “Never give someone who calls you control of your computer. Instead, hang up and report it to the FTC.”

In the Palm Beach County case, deceptive internet pop-up windows disguised as legitimate operating system or web browser security warnings appeared to be messages from well-known software companies, such as Microsoft, according to state officials.

The pop-ups said consumers’ computers were at risk and instructed them to get help by contacting a toll-free telephone number that connected consumers to sales agents at inbound call centers. Consumers were then pressured to buy high-priced virus protection software, officials said.

The complaint includes nuggets from the sales script, like this one playing on customer fears:

 

If the customer is still standoffish read this: What were you doing on your computer when you received the pop up? (They generally were doing something they shouldn’t have that caused this pop up and this will typically lower their guard when they recognize THEY are the cause of this, NOT YOU.)

 

 

Florida sues tobacco giant in PB Co. for violating landmark deal

Florida’s attorney general Wednesday took action in a lawsuit in Palm Beach County Circuit Court against tobacco interests accused of violating a landmark 1997 agreement that provides the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

The state is owed $45 million and expects to suffer annual losses of $30 million unless the court enforces the agreement in the wake of recent industry sales and mergers, the suit said.

winston“The sale of major, pre-existing tobacco brands to another company for billions of dollars does not cause the payment obligations to vanish like a puff of smoke,” Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement. “I look forward to the state obtaining prompt relief.”

The suit targets ITG Brands LLC of Greensboro, N.C. Attempts to reach the company for comment were not immediately successful.

The lawsuit comes two decades after a history-making deal with RJR and other major tobacco companies to compensate the state for public health expenses. Such payments amounted to about $378 million in 2014, the suit said.

State officials noted RJR recently sold three of its most well-known cigarette brands, Winston, Kool and Salem, along with Lorillard Tobacco Co. brand Maverick, to ITG for $7 billion.

 

 

FTC returns $18 million to home-based coaching scheme victims

Refunds are being mailed to consumers who were defrauded by The Tax Club, the FTC said.
Refunds are being mailed to consumers who were defrauded by The Tax Club, the FTC said.

The Federal Trade Commission is mailing more than 20,000 checks totaling more than $18 million to people who lost money to The Tax Club, a scheme that targeted people who were trying to start home-based businesses.

The FTC and the New York and Florida Attorneys General, alleged in a complaint that the defendants falsely claimed their services would help home-based businesses succeed, and promised services that were never delivered, such as business coaching services, corporate formation services, and credit development services.

In 2014 the FTC and the two Attorneys General alleged that The Tax Club enterprise took more than $200 million from thousands of consumers, including Florida consumers, through an elaborate  telemarketing scheme.

People who lost money will get an average of $914 back. Recipients should deposit or cash checks within 60 days.

The FTC never requires people to pay money or provide account information to cash refund checks. If you have questions about the case, contact the FTC’s refund administrator, Analytics Consulting LLC, at 855-561-1178.

To learn more about the FTC’s refund program, visit www.ftc.gov/refunds.

 

 

Tech support firms in Delray Beach reach $27 million settlement

The FTC and Florida Attorney General Announced a $27 million settlement with tech support firms.
The FTC and Florida Attorney General Announced a $27 million settlement with tech support firms.

Companies in Palm Beach County accused of scamming consumers into thinking their computers were infected have agreed to a judgment of more than $27 million and to surrender their assets, state and federal officials said Monday.

The Florida Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement with Vast Tech Support LLC, its owner, founder and chief operating officer Mark Donohue and OMG Tech Support LLC.

A court-appointed receiver will liquidate the assets and wind down the companies, officials said. An attempt to reach defendants for comment through an attorney was not immediately successful.

Regulators accused the company of tricking consumers that their computers were infected, in order to sell them products they did not need.

In 2014, The Palm Beach Post reported FTC investigators raided the offices of OMG Help and Vast Tech in Delray Beach after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order.

Here is what a Florida Attorney General’s Office statement said Monday:

Vast Tech Support advertised a registry software product, PC HealthBoost, claiming the product could dramatically increase computer speed and protect from errors, crashes and freezes. After consumers downloaded a free version of the software, a system scan allegedly misled consumers to believe that their computer had hundreds or thousands of errors in need of repair, regardless of whether the computer had any performance issues. Another defendant in this matter, Boost Software, urged consumers to pay $29.97 for the registered version of PC HealthBoost to fix the non-existent errors.

To activate software, consumers were instructed to call Vast Tech Support’s call center, operated by OMG Tech Help. According to complaints, during the call, telemarketers gained access to consumers’ computers and ran a scripted diagnostic process that falsely indicated that the computer had performance or security issues. The telemarketers then allegedly scared consumers into spending hundreds of dollars on unnecessary computer repairs.

As part of the settlement, Vast Tech Support, Donohue and OMG Tech Support are permanently prohibited from:

  • Making a false or misleading statement to induce any person to pay for goods or services or to induce a charitable contribution in connection with the telemarketing of any product or service;
  • Performing any acts or practices that violate the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, Chapter 501, Part II, Florida Statutes or the Telemarketing Sales Rule, 16 C.F.R. Part 310; and
  • Misrepresenting any material fact in connection with the marketing, advertising, promotion, distribution, offering for sale or sale of any goods or services.

Additionally, Vast Tech Support and OMG Tech Support are permanently prohibited from:

  • Advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, selling, providing or assisting, or providing consulting services for others engaged in advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, selling or providing any tech support product or service; and

  • Owning or controlling any business entity advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, selling, providing, or assisting or providing consulting services for others engaged in advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, selling or providing any tech support product or service.

 

 

Court shuts down robo callers who took $16.5 million from consumers

Court orders credit card interest rate reduction robo calls stopped/
Court orders credit card interest rate reduction robo calls stopped.

Remember Rachel the robo caller claiming to be from “Card Services?” She’s been shut down.

Tuesday the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida Attorney General’s Office and the state of  announced a lawsuit against Life Management Services, an Orlando-based company that the FTC says is behind hundreds of thousands of these calls.

The defendants has been charged with bombarding consumers with illegal robocalls in an attempt to sell them bogus credit-card interest rate reduction and debt relief services. In all, the complaint alleges  the defendants’ robocall scheme bilked consumers out of more than $15.6 million since at least January 2013.

  A federal district court in Orlando has temporarily stopped the operation, collectively known as Life Management Services of Orange County, LLC, from making illegal robocalls and selling its services pending an upcoming hearing.

 “This is the latest effort by the FTC and our international, state, and federal law enforcement partners to stop illegal robocalling operations that harass consumers day and night with unwanted calls,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

“These scammers use robocalls to hide their identities and exploit consumers,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. “Working jointly with the FTC, our actions to stop these schemes and hold the scammers responsible will not only keep Floridians from falling victim to these scams, but also protect consumers nationwide.”

According to the complaint, the defendants used generic names such as “Bank Card Services” and “Credit Assistance Program,” and falsely claimed to be a “licensed enrollment center” for major credit card networks like MasterCard and Visa. The alleged deception involved the defendants claiming that they would work with the consumer’s credit card company or bank to substantially and permanently lower their credit card interest rates.

The defendants allegedly claimed these “services” would save consumers thousands of dollars in a short period and allow them to pay off credit card balances three- to five-times faster. For these “services” consumers typically were required to make up-front payments of between $500 and $5,000. In reality, the defendants sometimes made a rudimentary attempt to contact the consumer’s credit card company, but consumers report that defendants’ were almost never able to obtain the promised rates or savings, the agencies charge.