Globe-trotting swindlers may try to evade law enforcement agencies intent on bringing them to justice. But they’re not factoring in the tenacity of public servants like Assistant United States Attorney Katherine Kopita of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York. Ms. Kopita’s work in prosecuting criminals who ripped off more than 1,300 small businesses, medical providers, and schools by illegally billing them for bogus online directory listings is one reason why the FTC’s Criminal Liaison Unit (CLU) just honored her with its Prosecuting Attorney’s Award.
The scheme involved sending small business owners and non-profit groups false invoices for online advertising services they hadn’t ordered and never authorized. When people didn’t pay the bogus bills, scammers sent them phony collection notices. Concerned about the consequences, many businesses cried “Uncle!” and paid money they didn’t owe.
AUSA Kopita secured indictments against defendants Ivan and Stefan Chernev and a third co-conspirator in 2017, but she then faced the challenge of tracking the defendants down and extraditing them to the United States. In cooperation with the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs, Ms. Kopita extradited Ivan Chernev from Italy in 2019 and Stefan Chernev from Germany in 2022.
Ivan Chernev ultimately pleaded guilty, admitting that he and his co-conspirators used the bogus billing scheme to steal money from small businesses, healthcare offices, and schools. Chernev was sentenced to 68 months in prison and must pay a $1.25 million restitution order. The criminal case against Stefan Chernev is ongoing.
The good news for consumers – and the bad news for scammers – is that U.S. enforcement agencies and their international counterparts often coordinate their efforts to prosecute law violators. For example, in this case, AUSA Kopita worked with the United States Postal Inspection Service, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with support from the FTC. Indeed, Ivan Chernev was no stranger to the FTC since the agency sued him in 2015 in FTC v. American Yellow Browser, obtaining a default judgment that banned him from marketing or selling business directories and directory listings and ordered him to pay $1.2 million in equitable monetary relief.
Law enforcement partnerships are a day-to-day part of the FTC’s work, but we still like to take a moment to acknowledge the exemplary efforts of prosecutors committed to consumer protection. That’s why the FTC’s Criminal Liaison Unit was proud to present its Prosecuting Attorney’s Award to Katherine Kopita in a ceremony last week in Albany, New York.
Since it was established in 2003, the FTC’s CLU has contributed to the successful prosecution of more than 1,000 criminal defendants – fraudulent telemarketers, phantom debt collectors, immigration scammers, and others who prey on consumers. Watch this video to learn more about the work of CLU. Looking for the inside story on how fraudsters may be targeting your company? Read the FTC’s Scams and Your Small Business.
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