Targeting the sellers of work-at-home schemes who were taking money out of consumers’ pockets with their deceptive pitches, the Federal Trade Commission today announced a joint federal and state law enforcement sweep cracking down on purveyors of fraudulent envelope-stuffing business opportunities. Joining the Commission in announcing its two federal district court complaints in “Operation Pushing the Envelope” were the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which announced five criminal and 22 civil cases; the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which announced two state complaints; and 23 states and four other government agencies that participated in a nationwide consumer education and outreach initiative about the potential costs of such work-at-home opportunities.
“Stuffing is fine for turkeys and stockings, but envelope-stuffing scams deserve a lump of coal,” said Howard Beales, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Consumers who have been ‘plucked’ by a work-at-home program and now believe it may not be legitimate can file a complaint with the Commission.”
“Internet-savvy consumers still rely on the traditional backbone of commerce, the U.S. mail, to communicate and conduct business. Our job as Postal Inspectors is to prevent those customers from becoming victims of mail fraud, including work-at-home schemes,” said Postal Inspector Molly McMinn.
“Envelope-stuffing promotions are perennial and pervasive scams. For as long as the BBB system has compiled national statistics, work-at-home schemes have dominated the attention of consumers seeking information from the Better Business Bureau. Educating potential victims is key to curbing the outreach of con artists who perpetrate these ‘easy-income, no-experience-necessary’ frauds,” said Ron Berry, Senior Vice President, Council of Better Business Bureaus.
The FTC’s Complaints
The FTC filed its complaints against the corporate defendants and individuals identified below. In each matter, the complaint alleges that the defendants violated the FTC Act through their alleged false statements or other deceptive practices. The complaints also allege that by providing the misleading information, the defendants provided the “means and instrumentalities” for their customers to deceive others.
Financial Resources Unlimited, Inc. The FTC filed its complaint against Financial Resources Unlimited, Inc.; Supreme Mailing Services, Inc.; and Mark E. Shelton, individually and as an officer of the corporate defendants, d/b/a L. Lewis & Associates and A. Joseph & Associates.
According to the complaint, since at least 2001, the defendants sold envelope-stuffing business opportunities throughout the United States, claiming that consumers could make “$500 WEEKLY” mailing sales brochures from home. Calling their plan a “Genuine opportunity,” the defendants allegedly claimed that no experience was necessary and that they would provide consumers who called the toll-free number in their classified ads all the supplies they need to earn “guaranteed paychecks.” Consumers who responded to the defendants’ ads were connected to a recorded message that instructed them to leave their name and address. According to the FTC, consumers subsequently received a form letter stating that they could earn “$550.00 to $3,000 AND MORE WEEKLY!,” based on $10 for each circular they mailed.
The defendants’ program was organized into five different “groups,” each promising a higher level of income, ranging from $550 per week in Group #1 to $5,000 weekly in Group #5, with sign-up fees ranging from $55 for Group #1, to $150 (originally $300) for Group #4. Group #5 was “only for home workers who started under income Group #4 and “received their 5th $3,000 paycheck.” The defendants allegedly identified Group #4 as the “BEST DEAL!” and provided consumers with examples of how much money they could earn at each level. The FTC alleges that consumers did not make the money promised by the defendants and that defendants did not pay $10 per envelope for all or many of the envelopes stuffed and mailed by consumers, as promised. The FTC also alleges that defendants did not pay the cost of postage as they promised consumers.
Castle Publishing. The FTC filed its complaint against Castle Publishing, a Texas sole proprietorship, and Treigh Dustin Hubbard, individually and as the sole owner and manager of Castle. According to the FTC, since early 2001, the defendants marketed and sold envelope-stuffing business opportunities to consumers throughout the United States using unsolicited home mailers containing numerous false claims. Many of their customers were unemployed, disabled, or elderly consumers who hoped to earn an income working from home.
The complaint alleges the defendants claimed consumers could “earn $2,900 to $5,000 and more weekly!” by inserting and mailing their “special letters” from home, that no advertising was required, and that they would be reimbursed for postage. In addition, they allegedly claimed to send consumers a check in “10 days,” and that “Inserting and Mailing Letters is One of the Easiest Jobs in the World.” They established five “income groups” consumers could work under – each offering a different “earning potential.” The fee for enrolling in each income group also increased progressively, from $59 for Group #1 to $149 for Group #4. Only after completing Group #4 could consumers purportedly reach Group #5, where the earning potential allegedly was “$5,000 and more weekly.” Finally, the defendants allegedly offered a “money-back guarantee” after their 5th paycheck. According to the FTC, few consumers received a paycheck, and those who tried to complain or get a refund found defendants virtually impossible to reach.
Law Enforcement Coordination
The FTC would like to thank the Council of Better Business Bureaus and its president and CEO Ken Hunter, as well as the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office for their significant contributions to “Operation Pushing the Envelope.” A list of all Postal Inspection Service cases is available on request. Copies of the Illinois Attorney General’s case documents may be obtained from their press contact identified below.
In addition, the following state attorneys general’s offices contributed to the success of the enforcement and consumer education effort announced today: Michigan, Florida, Texas, Indiana, West Virginia, Mississippi, Wyoming, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Missouri, California, South Dakota, New Jersey, Ohio, Arkansas, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado. The contributions of the following agencies also is appreciated: The South Carolina Secretary of State, the New York State Consumer Protection Board, the Washington State Securities Division, and the Cook County (Illinois) State’s Attorney Office.
Concurrent with the today’s announcement of “Operation Pushing the Envelope,” the
FTC issued a new consumer alert entitled “Take This Scheme and Stuff It: Avoiding Envelope-Stuffing Rip-Offs.” The alert, which can be found on the Commission’s Web site at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/stuffitalrt.htm and as a link to this press release, provides tips for consumers who are interested in working at home, but wary of potential scams. According to the alert, if you’re tempted by an envelope-stuffing “opportunity,” there are some questions to ask the promoters before you send any money or sign up to receive more information:
The answers to these questions may help you determine whether an envelope-stuffing promotion is appropriate for your circumstances and legitimate. It may also help to check out the company with your local consumer protection agency, state attorney general, and the BBB in the community where the company is located, as well as the community where you live. The alert also provides information on what consumers can do if they have spent time and money on a work-at-home program and they now believe it may not be legitimate.
The Commission vote to file each of the complaints was 5-0. The complaint against Financial Resources Unlimited, Inc., et al. was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, on December 9, 2003. The complaint against Castle Publishing, et al. was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division, on December 9, 2003. All were filed under seal, with the seals lifted on December 15, 2003.
NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendant has actually violated the law. The case will be decided by the court.
Copies of the Commission’s 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, NW, Washington, DC 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
Mitchell J. Katz,
Office of Public Affairs
Steven Baker or Theresa J. Bresnahan
FTC Midwest Region Office
Molly McMinn, Postal Inspector
U.S. Postal Inspection Service
Melissa Merz, Press Secretary
Illinois Office of the Attorney General
(FTC File Nos., Civ. Action Nos.: Castle Publishing, 032-3161,Civ. No. A03CA 905SS; Financial Resources Unlimited, 032-3243, Civ. No. 03-C-8864)