Boca case leads to $10 million in FTC refunds. Are you due a check?

Federal officials said this week they are ready to mail more than 36,000 checks totaling more than $10 million in a case involving a Boca Raton tech support company.

The money comes from a settlement with Inbound Call Experts LLC, doing business as Advanced Tech Support, and other defendants. The Federal Trade Commission called it a scam that used high-pressure sales tactics  to market products and services by falsely claiming to find viruses and malware on consumers’ computers.

Average refund: $277.44.  Deposit or cash the check within 60 days, officials advised. Also: Never pay money or provide account information to receive a refund check.  Questions? Call the FTC’s refund line at (877) 793-0908.

Other defendants in the case, which goes back several years, include PC Vitalware LLC, Super PC Support LLC, Robert D. Deignan, Paul M. Herdsman and Justin M. Wright. Defendants neither admitted nor denied allegations in agreeing to the settlement, according to a court order.

Inbound Call Experts appears to be still in operation, or at least maintaining a phone line under that company name. A call this week was not immediately returned.

 

Texting and driving: Tougher rules appear dead in Senate

Update Wednesday: A House bill is positioned for formal passage of tougher enforcement of texting while driving Thursday but the measure appears unlikely to become law as a committee chairman won’t let the Senate version come to a vote.

State Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray Beach

Senate SB 90 sponsor Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, told the News Service of Florida he continues to push for the bill but appropriations chairman Rob Bradley has indicated the proposal likely won’t come up before the legislative session ends next week.

“All I can do is push as hard as I can on getting stuff done,” Perry said.

House co-sponsor Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray, offered a response to Sen. Bradley’s stated privacy concerns with HB 33.

The House bill “strikes the proper balance between privacy rights and safety,” she said.

“In addition, texting while driving is already against the law, but it’s only enforceable as secondary offense,” she continued. “Since it has taken effect, violations have been issued and I have not heard any drivers complain about Law enforcement officers attacking the privacy rights of drivers who have been cited under the current ban.

“We are elected to represent the best interests of the people we represent. It is critical that do all we can to ensure that we do not lose another life on Florida’s roadways to a texting driver.”

Original post: A Florida Senate committee’s last chance to authorize police to pull over drivers for texting on cell phones comes Tuesday and a House representative from Palm Beach County is imploring its chairman to “do the right thing.”

Florida is one of four states that don’t make texting while driving a primary offense, meaning cops cannot cite it unless they pull someone over for another infraction like speeding. At that point it brings a $30 fine, plus local add-on fees.

Records requested by The Palm Beach Post showed crash reports listing distracted driving rose 10 percent in Florida in 2016, and injuries associated with texting rose 45 percent in Palm Beach County.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has expressed concerns SB 90 gives police too broad a pretext to stop motorists, and opens the door to invasions of privacy in the course of seeking proof on phones. The bill’s last chance to be heard in a scheduled Senate committee meeting comes Tuesday, meaning it’s near death for the 2018 session without prompt action.

The House version, HB 33, is expected to reach the floor of that chamber Wednesday and has the House Speaker’s support.

“I implore Sen. Bradley to do the right thing and bring SB 90 up for a vote in the Appropriations Committee as soon as possible,” said co-sponsor Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray Beach. “I also urge all Floridians to contact their local legislators and urge them to support HB 33 and SB 90.”

The bills would make texting while driving a primary offense.

Bradley, a former prosecutor, said a tougher law brings worrying considerations such as “increasing the likelihood of pretextual stops” and increasing “government-citizen involvement tenfold potentially.”

Bill supporters say Florida has some of the weakest penalties in the nation for texting, sending all the wrong signals.

“Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death for teenagers,” Slosberg said.  “Primary enforcement of texting and driving laws decreases fatalities—most significantly among teenagers. ”

 

 

 

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.”

 

NEW: Driver texting penalties strengthen under speaker-supported bill

After years of inaction by lawmakers, Florida’s House Speaker said Wednesday he backs new legislation to toughen penalties for texting while driving.

Allie Augello’s death left her father Steve convinced Florida needs tougher rules against drivers using cell phones. (Courtesy of Augello family)

The developments come after The Palm Beach Post requested state records showing crash reports listing distracted driving rose 10 percent in Florida, injuries rose 16  percent and deaths increased 13 percent in 2016. Injuries associated specifically with texting rose 45 percent in Palm Beach County, the newspaper reported in June.

Florida is one of four states that don’t make texting while driving a primary offense.

Yet state lawmakers have for years refused to make it more than a secondary offense, meaning police could not cite it unless they pulled a driver over for another offense such as speeding.

Steve Augello, whose daughter Allie died in a crash in the Tampa area he believes was clearly caused by another driver’s texting, said that made him “angry as hell.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran praised HB 33 filed Wednesday by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and prime co-sponsor Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton,  which makes texting and driving a primary offense.

The GOP speaker said in a statement,”Texting and driving presents a real, life-threatening danger to Floridians both on and off the road. The data is overwhelming and the need to act is equally compelling. We’re proud to unveil a bill that does just that while also addressing legitimate civil liberties concerns. This bill establishes a proper balance between safety and law enforcement and our cherished liberties. The goal is safer streets, not greater conflict.”

Corcoran commended Toledo “for taking on this issue” and thanked  Slosberg “for her heartfelt and personal commitment to the safety of Floridians on the road.”

Slosberg said, “Providing law enforcement with the ability to enforce the ‘Texting While Driving Ban’ as a primary offense will save lives and prevent injuries. I’ve been contacted by constituents with stories about parents dying, kids dying, and it is time that we take action.”

Toledo said as a mother of five children the “numbers are as frightening as they are compelling.”

Here’s what sponsors say the bill does:

It strengthens the current ban on texting, emailing, and instant messaging while driving, by changing the current enforcement of the ban from secondary to primary.

A first violation remains a nonmoving violation that carries a $30 fine plus court costs, for a total fine of up to $108.

A second or subsequent violation committed within five years is a moving violation that carries a $60 fine plus court costs, for a total fine of up to $158, with three points added to the driver license record of the motor vehicle operator.

Any violation of the ban that causes a crash results in the addition of six points to the offender’s driver license record.

Any violation of the ban committed in conjunction with any moving violation for which points are assessed, when committed within a school safety zone results in an additional two points being added to the offender’s driver license record.

The bill protects civil liberties by requiring a warrant to access a driver’s phone. It also requires a law enforcement officer who stops a motor vehicle for a violation of the ban to inform the driver of his or her right to decline a search of the phone.

Boca man’s sweepstakes prize: 6.5 years in prison

More than 100,000 people across the United States and other countries were ripped off by a sweepstakes mail fraud scheme that is sending four men to prison, including one from Palm Beach County, prosecutors said.

The total haul rivaled a small lottery jackpot: More than $25 million.

The men falsely notified people by mail that they had won a substantial prize, federal officials said. Letters claimed recipients just needed to pay a fee ranging from $20 to $50 to redeem their winnings.

But the defendants pocketed the money sent to fictitious companies, according to Benjamin G. Greenberg, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and partners including the Federal Trade Commission.

Marcus Pradel, 41, of Boca Raton received a sentence of 78 months for his role Tuesday, officials said.

Sentenced to 84 months each were Matthew Pisoni, 44, of Fort Lauderdale and Victor Ramirez, 38, of Aventura.  John Leon, 50, of Fort Lauderdale received 24 months. Attempts to seek comment through attorneys were not immediately successful.

The case serves as a reminder of a big red flag that should make consumers realize something’s not quite right when amazing news of cash winnings comes their way.

Legitimate sweepstakes don’t make you pay to receive a prize, the FTC advises.

Con artists can use legitimate-sounding or familiar corporate names and come up with all kinds of excuses that may have a ring of plausibility: It’s for taxes, or to insure delivery.

But when it comes to prize scams, the agency says, never pay to get paid.

Bill to let cops pull over Fla. drivers for texting clears first stop

After years of stalled legislation, a bill to let police pull over Florida drivers for texting passed its first state legislative committee of the 2018 session Tuesday.

The Palm Beach Post reported in June that crash reports listing distracted driving rose 10 percent in Florida in 2016, according to records the newspaper requested. Injuries associated with texting rose 45 percent in Palm Beach County.

But state legislators last spring declined to strengthen what advocates call some of the lightest penalties in the nation for drivers texting on cell phones.

“It drives me crazy the law is so weak,” said Steve Augello, whose daughter was killed in the Tampa area in a crash he believes was caused by another driver’s texting.

On Tuesday, SB 90, sponsored by state Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, passed the Senate communications, energy and public utilities committee 7-1.

“All too often we hear of the tragic stories of families that have been affected by someone who was texting behind the wheel,” Perry said. “I’m proud to sponsor this vital piece of legislation that will make texting and driving a primary offense in the State of Florida and join the many other states who have answered the call for safer roadways.”

Florida is one of five states that do not make texting while driving a primary offense. That means police have to stop a motorist for another reason, such as speeding, to write a citation. A fine is $30, though Florida Highway Patrol officials say in Palm Beach County local add-on fees make it $116.

“This is an important step for saving lives on Florida roads,” said Logan McFaddin, regional manager for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, representing nearly 1,000 members. “We need to change driver behavior, and we believe that toughening the distracted driving laws will save lives by encouraging people to think twice about picking up the phone while driving.”

Safety is the top priority, she said, “but the increase in accidents also could be impacting consumers’ insurance costs. The recent spike in the number of auto accidents resulting from distracted driving comes at a time when repair, labor, medical and other costs associated with accidents are also rising.”

It’s still early in the process, and skeptical legislators in past years have questioned whether there’s proof that texting-while-driving bans in other states have reduced accident rates.

“My main concern here is not giving people false hope that this is going to solve the problem,” said state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “If we really want to do something to solve the problem, we should just not have people be able to use their phones while driving.”

But passing a committee represents a more promising start than some bills have enjoyed in the past.

“Our number of distracted driving injuries and deaths are rising and our laws are not getting any better,” Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton and a sponsor of House legislation, said in June. Last session, she noted, “none of my bills actually received a hearing.”

 

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.

 

FTC: Yes, our emails are real on $10M refunds for Boca tech scheme

A shadowy “tech support” industry based in Palm Beach County has given fits to consumers and regulators alike, with one Lake Worth man accused this year of faking Federal Trade Commission news releases in pursuing victims of past schemes.

That provides a colorful if slightly awkward backdrop to the FTC’s announcement this week it is sending emails to notify eligible consumers they are eligible for a share of $10 million in refunds after a significant settlement.  The refunds come from an agreement with Boca Raton-based Advanced Tech Support, which also used the name Inbound Call Experts.

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.

There are even alleged follow-up scams, reaching out to victims and seeking fees to get refunds. One Lake Worth man, Daniel L. Croft, was ordered by a court in April to stop posing as someone affiliated with the FTC.

One tip to tell if the email is real: The FTC email will not ask you for any fees to claim a refund.

The FTC says its emails about refunds in this case will come from: subscribe@subscribe.ftc.gov

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.

 

Dog Whisperer stock scheme bites Boca man with 9-year sentence

Stock promoters claimed the Dog Whisperer and former CEOs of Apple and Pepsi backed sizzling deals including the provider of a non-contact infrared thermometer for dogs and home health care, federal officials said.

But investors had reason to feel plenty hot and snarly, prosecutors said, when it became evident “there were no actual endorsements by celebrities or wealthy individuals.”

Now a Boca Raton man has been sentenced to 111 months or just over nine years in prison for his role in a scheme that cost 700 victims across the country more than $23 million, officials said.

The former CEO of Sanomedics International Holdings Inc., Keith Houlihan, 49, of Boca Raton was among more than a dozen people charged from South Florida, California and Connecticut. An attempt to reach Houlihan for comment through an attorney was not successful.

His July 26 sentencing comes after an investigation of a “boiler room” scheme that operated from 2009 to 2015, said Benjamin G. Greenberg, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and FBI special agent in charge George L. Piro. Defendants falsely claimed “famous and wealthy individuals, such as former CEOs of Apple Inc., PepsiCo, and IVAX Corp., and the ‘Dog Whisperer,’ were either heavily invested in the company or were company representatives,” they said.

The Dog Whisperer is the name of a reality TV show that featured dog behaviorist Cesar Millan.

Another defendant accused of defrauding “elderly and unsophisticated investors,” Craig Sizer, 49, of Miami, was sentenced to 12 years. Twelve others including Houlihan have have been sentenced or await sentencing.

 

 

Boca weighs message to state: Fix lax texting, driving laws

Update: The Boca Raton city council passed the resolution 5-0 to become the first local-government council to approve it, News Service of Florida reported.

Original post: Police in Florida cannot pull over drivers for texting, but a state representative wants Boca Raton to send a message this week to legislators that lives are at risk because laws are too slack.

State Rep. Slosberg

The Palm Beach Post reported crash reports indicating distracted driving rose 10 percent in Florida in 2016. Injuries associated with texting rose 45 percent in Palm Beach County.

Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray Beach, said she is working with Boca Raton City Councilman Robert Weinroth to introduce a local resolution urging the state legislature to make texting while driving a primary offense.

Florida is one of four states that make it a secondary offense, meaning no penalty unless unless drivers are pulled over for something else like speeding. Bills by Slosberg and others to strengthen the law made little headway in last spring’s legislative session.

Slosberg said she sent requests to every commissioner in the state asking them to adopt this public safety resolution. Weinroth plans to introduce the resolution supporting the legislation before the Boca Raton city council on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

“Providing law enforcement with the ability to enforce the texting-while-driving ban as a primary offense will save lives and prevent injuries,” Slosberg said.  “I’ve been contacted by constituents with stories about parents dying, kids dying, and it is time that we take action.”