The fortunes of several marketers who used the Internet and spam to sell purportedly authentic international driver's permits (IDPs) have taken a decided turn for the worse, with the Federal Trade Commission today announcing six federal district court complaints to stop their allegedly deceptive behavior. The Commission's actions, taken as part of the "Operation License for Trouble" law enforcement sweep, targeted sellers who, under the guise of "international law," pitched their worthless documents to immigrants and other consumers who were seeking an alternative to a government-issued driver's license or identification document. According to the FTC, authentic IDPs, which are available in the U.S. from only two authorized agencies, American Automobile Association (AAA) and American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA), have a very limited use and purpose.
"The defendants deceptively marketed bogus documents," said J. Howard Beales III, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "They misled people with limited English proficiency and those whose licenses have been revoked about the value and the purpose of the IDP. And they charged them exorbitant fees. We're pleased that the FTC can put this scam in park." He noted that while the permits being deceptively marketed on the Internet typically sold for between $65 and $375, the real IDPs offered by AAA and the AATA are just $10 apiece.
Legitimate IDPs, which are issued pursuant to the United Nations Road Traffic Convention of 1949, assist a person with a valid driver's license to drive in foreign countries that have also signed the Convention. Notably, an IDP is not a substitute for a government-issued driver's license; rather it is simply a booklet that translates that government-issued driver's license into a number of different languages. Therefore, IDPs merely serve as a translation document for a government-issued driver's license, and they have no value independent of such government-issued licenses. IDPs do not protect their holders from traffic enforcement or from "points," and cannot be used in place of suspended or revoked license, or as identification in lieu of a government-issued document.
"The FTC's action helps alert consumers to these scams, while letting bogus marketers know this conduct won't be tolerated," said Sandra Hughes, vice president of AAA Travel. "These scams lead innocent travelers to spend hundreds of dollars for false documents. Even worse, they encourage unlicensed drivers to return to our highways, endangering all of us."
The FTC filed complaints in federal district court against the following defendants:
1) Yad Abraham (Abraham), also known as (a.k.a.) Tim Thorn and Timothy Thorn, individually and doing business as (d.b.a.) Sharpthorn Internet Solutions and Internex, LLC; 2) Jaguar Business Concepts, LP d.b.a. Libertymall.com, Cheyenne Investment Alliance, LLC (Cheyenne), and Jacqueline Demer, individually and as member/manager of Cheyenne; 3) Jordan Maxwell, a.k.a. Russell Pine, individually and doing business as BBCOA, a.k.a. BBC of America, a.k.a. Better Book and Cassette of America, and Vic Varjabedian, a.k.a. Victor Varjabedian, a.k.a. Varouj Varjabedian, individually; 4) William Scott Dion, individually and d.b.a. PT Resource Center and PTRC, a.k.a. Don Glessner; 5) Carlton Press, Inc., Carlton Press, Ltd., and Kim Fleming Bo Weiss; and 6) one or more parties d.b.a. the Institute for International Licensing (IIL), Aladdin Financial Management, University Systems, and Wheelie International Limited.
In each complaint, the Commission alleges that, in violation of the FTC Act, the defendants falsely claim that their IDPs are a legitimate alternative to a state-issued driver's license, and misrepresent that: 1) their IDPs authorize consumers to drive legally in the United States; 2) their IDPs allow consumers to avoid points or traffic violations, as well as sanctions for driving with a suspended or revoked driver's license; and 3) their IDPs can be used in the United States as an identification document in the same ways that a person uses a government-issued photo identification document. The allegations against each defendant are presented below.
Abraham. According to the FTC, the defendants conducted a nationwide scheme to sell worthless IDPs through the drivelegal.com Web site. The defendants contended that the documents met all the conditions of the U.N. Convention and that they could be used to avoid many types of driving sanctions, such as points. The defendants further claimed the IDP would allow users to obtain auto insurance and rent cars - neither of which was true. Their IDP costs $350, plus shipping and handling.
Libertymall.com. Using the Libertymall.com Web site, the defendants sold supposedly authentic IDPs, claiming they were developed in compliance with the U.N. Convention. Claiming that their documents would enable visitors to become "permanent tourists," the defendants charged consumers $65 per IDP, which the FTC alleges was simply a laminated card. Each card was signed by a purported "Agent" of the so-called International Travel Association.
BBCOA. The FTC alleges that this defendants' IDPs, which they sold over the BBCOA Web site at a cost of $85 each, were nothing more than a laminated card and an IDP booklet that closely resembled a real IDP - except that they contained a seal of the so-called International Travel Association. In addition to selling supposedly authentic IDPs, the defendants also marketed credit repair services and "debt termination programs," and the FTC's complaint contains additional allegations regarding these activities.
PT Resource Center. Operating since at least 1995, PTRC's Web site contained statements very similar to those found on the LibertyMall.com and BBCOA Web sites. In addition to providing a supposedly real IDP for $65, the defendants went as far as informing consumers exactly what to say if stopped by the police and stressing that "Your IDP . . . [is] perfectly valid if used in a lawful manner. Following these tips will greatly increase your success rate, and minimize contact with 'Big Brother.'"
Carlton Press. Operating since at least October 2000, the defendants used two Web sites to pitch their supposedly real IDPs for $147 each. The booklets they offered were exactly the same as those sold by BBCOA and PTRC.
Institute for International Licensing (IIL). These defendants also sold their permits over two Web sites, pitching them as a way for consumers with poor driving records or revoked or suspended driver's licenses to get around the system. Consumers wishing to buy a permit from their Web site were asked to mail in certain personal information, while those responding to spam messages were instructed to call a recorded line. Either way, the result was the same - consumers were sent two IDPs, along with a rubber stamp bearing the company's logo and instructions for using the document.
In each matter, the Commission is seeking either temporary and permanent injunctive relief, as well as other relief as deemed appropriate by the court, to prevent current and future violations of the FTC Act.
Consumers seeking more information about how to avoid potentially deceptive ads for IDPs are encouraged to read the new FTC consumer alert: "Ads for International Driver's Licenses or Permits Could be a Dead End." This publication, which is available on the Commission's Web, site also cautions consumers that it is against the law for U.S. citizens and residents to use an international driver's permit in place of their state-issued driver's license.
The Commission vote authorizing staff to file each of the six complaints was 5-0. The complaints were filed in the following courts: 1) Yad Abraham, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on January 8, 2003; 2) Liberty Mall.com, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Northern Division on January 13, 2003; 3) BBCOA, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Western Division on January 7, 2003; 4) PT Resource Center, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts on January 8, 2003; 5) Carlton Press, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on January 10, 2003; and 6) IIL, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on January 7, 2003.
The FTC would like to thank the Offices of the Attorney General of the states of Illinois and Missouri, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the AAA, the AATA, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the Northeast Region of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts for their support and assistance in bringing these cases. The Office of Fair Trading in the United Kingdom and the Consumer Ombudsman's Office of Denmark also provided assistance.
NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has "reason to believe" that the law has or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. A complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendants have actually violated the law. The cases will be decided by the courts in which they were filed.
Copies of the complaints 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. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Lemuel W. Dowdy
Bureau of Consumer Protection
James Reilly Dolan
Bureau of Consumer Protection
Lemuel W. Dowdy
Bureau of Consumer Protection
Raymond E. McKown
FTC Western Region
310-824-4325 (Yad Abraham)
Barbara Anthony and Thomas A. Cohn
FTC Northeast Region
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-3719 (Carleton Press and IIL)
FTC Midwest Region
(FTC File No. P024203)
(Civ. Nos.: EDCV 03-0030 VAP SGLX (C.D. Cal), Yad Abraham; MJGO 3 Cv 108 (D. Md.) Libertymall.com; 03-40005-NMG (D. Mass.), PTRC; 03-CV-0226-RLC (S.D.N.Y.), Carlton Press, LTD; 1:03-CV-00021-RMC (D.D.C.), IIL; 03 CV 0128 (C.D. Cal.) BBCOA)