The Federal Trade Commission today announced the first court settlement resulting from a series of travel fraud complaints brought in August of 1999 and together termed "Operation Trip Trap." Through the Final Judgment and Order filed with the court by Commission staff, All Around Travel Club, Inc. (AATC), Century Financial Group, Inc. (CFG), Michael Mansueto (president of AATC), Douglas Baetz and Glenn Gallant (the majority owners of AATC and officers in both AATC and CFC) will be permanently barred from misrepresenting specific claims to consumers regarding travel clubs and credit cards, and will be enjoined from misrepresenting any material fact concerning their ability to perform or provide travel or credit products or services for consumers.
The order settles charges that the defendants billed some consumers for travel club membership package charges that were never authorized. The order also settles charges that the defendants failed to deliver promised packages to consumers who had chosen to join the travel club.
According to the Commission's complaint, AATC contacted consumers with poor or no credit histories. The consumers were told that they could join AATC's travel club and receive the AATC travel package and a BestBank unsecured VISA credit card. They were further told that membership in the travel club would cost $498, which could be paid by charging this amount to the BestBank VISA credit card that consumers would receive after joining the club. The credit card also had a $45 annual fee. Consumers then were sent an authorization form to fill out and return to AATC, along with their check for the first monthly payment of $20, in order to receive the travel package and credit card.
In many instances, however, consumers were billed for the AATC membership fee and the BestBank VISA credit card fee, for a total of $543, even though they had not authorized these charges and, in many instances, had expressly declined the AATC offer. In addition, many consumers who did choose to join the AATC travel club did not receive their membership packages.
Under the terms of the final order, the defendants are prohibited from engaging in a variety of business activities, including misrepresenting: that consumers will receive travel club membership benefits if they join a travel club; that consumers will be billed for a travel club membership only if they authorize a charge to a credit card for the travel club membership fee; and that a written authorization or application is required for the issuance of a credit card or for the posting of a charge to a credit card. The defendants are also prohibited from misrepresenting any material fact concerning their ability to perform or provide any travel or credit products or services for consumers. In addition, the order permanently enjoins the defendants from selling or renting the customer lists it developed during the alleged unlawful activity, and requires them to stop making collections of accounts and to send notices to consumers in certain circumstances.
Commission staff worked closely with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in this matter. The FDIC is currently involved in a civil case against three of the defendants (CFG, Douglas Baetz and Glenn Gallant) for alleged bank fraud relating to the same business activities as the FTC action and which allegedly resulted in the failure of BestBank. When BestBank failed, the FDIC took over numerous consumer VISA credit card accounts which had been opened as a result of the defendants' actions. The FDIC has now forgiven the outstanding debts of all consumers who alleged fraud against the defendants.
The Commission vote to authorize the staff to file the Stipulated Final Judgment and Order for Permanent Injunction was 5-0. The judgment and order were signed by the court on February 16, 2000.
Copies of the documents mentioned in this release are available from the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357); TDD for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. Consumers with concerns about travel-related fraud or any other potentially fraudulent business practices may also report those complaints to the FTC. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.
(FTC File No. X990072)