Refunds are coming in Boynton tech support scheme, feds say

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.

Defendants neither admitted nor denied allegations in a settlement approved by a federal judge in Illinois last year.

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. Socarras of 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.”

 

Surprise ambulance bills: Watch for white paper by year’s end

Consumers concerned about ambulance charges of hundreds or thousands of dollars after they call 911 can expect a report by the end of the year from a state group that met for a fourth and final time Tuesday.

The contents of the “white paper” could set the stage for what state legislators attempt to do, or not do, in their spring 2018 session.

A big issue: Whether the work of the Emergency Medical Transportation Working Group hosted by Florida insurance consumer advocate Sha’Ron James amounts to a strong case for a ban on “balance billing.” That means public or private ambulance providers, most of whom decline to join insurer networks, could be prohibited from charging consumers more than the equivalent of “in-network” costs.

Ambulance providers warned it could mean higher taxes or reduced services.

“If you don’t have balance billing, then you’re asking the taxpayers of Stuart to pick up the difference,” said Stuart Fire Rescue Chief David Dyal.

There’s only so much “blood in the turnip” of taxpayer support, he said.

In many cases, ambulance providers say, consumers are paying more because their health plans increasingly make them responsible for higher deductibles.

But groups representing insurers argue there has to be some incentive for ambulance providers to negotiate rates — particularly with air transport, where charges can run into tens of thousands of dollars — or consumers will increasingly get hit with big bills they do not expect.

Fearing such charges becomes a public-safety issue if consumers hesitate to call 911 when they really need fast help.

“If God forbid we were in an emergency in the future, I would think twice about calling an ambulance,” Bonny Fishman of Boynton Beach said in February about charges of more than $800 for her husband’s ground ambulance ride.

“There are points where stakeholders are clearly apart,” James said Tuesday, but “we’re all here to work for the best interests of patients or consumers or policyholders.”

 

 

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.

 

Boynton man vs. IRS over big refunds, house, Jag: How it ended

A Boynton Beach man seemed to have it all: home, Jaguar, Mercedes Benz. But he soon had something else  — attention from the Internal Revenue Service.

David R. Andre, 41, pleaded guilty to corruptly endeavoring to obstruct the administration of the internal revenue laws and theft of government funds, acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Goldberg of the U.S. Justice Department’s tax division said Tuesday.

Over several  years, Andre filed personal tax returns that sought more than $5.6 million in refunds to which he was not entitled and he received $485,000 in refunds, federal officials said. He used the money to purchase his residence and multiple vehicles, according to prosecutors.

At one point, the IRS placed a lien on his house and lifted it after he represented that he was about to make a substantial payment, officials said. After he failed to pay, authorities said they re-filed the lien.

He also made false statements to IRS agents and told them that he purchased his residence with money he inherited, prosecutors said.

An attempt to seek comment through Andre’s attorney was not immediately successful.

Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 8. He could receive up to three years in prison on one charge and 10 years on another, 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.

 

Boynton Beach man indicted for tax-refund scheme seeking $5.6M

An indictment unsealed Tuesday shows a federal grand jury in West Palm Beach returned an indictment against a Boynton Beach man for allegations that he filed false tax returns seeking $5.6 million in refunds and misled IRS investigators.

David R. Andre falsely told federal agents he purchased a home with inheritance proceeds, officials alleged, when he used money obtained fraudulently from the IRS, about $464,000.

The case involves returns filed from 2010 to 2015.

No attorney is yet listed for Andre in court records and attempts to reach him were not immediately successful. An indictment alleges crimes have been committed but a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

If convicted, prosecutors said, Andre faces a maximum of three years in prison for corruptly endeavoring to impede the due administration of the internal revenue laws, three years for each count of filing a false tax return, 10 years for each count of theft of government property, and 10 years for each money laundering count.