A federal court in Tampa, Florida has ordered a temporary halt to the allegedly deceptive sales practices of three Sarasota-based companies marketing work-at-home paralegal business opportunities. The court order follows a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission charging that Para-Link International, Inc., AAA Family Centers, Inc., The Liberty Group of America, Inc., and the companies' three owners and operators, Deborah R. Dolen, Matthew See, and Judy Graves, marketed and sold their paralegal training kits and other work-at-home opportunities - at a cost of $395 - $495 each - to consumers across the United States, with claims that these "paralegals" achieve incomes of over $200 per hour or as much as $2,000 per week, and that the defendants would provide a steady stream of case referrals. According to the FTC, few consumers who purchased the "kits" or other business opportunities from the defendants ever realized such incomes. In addition to the temporary restraining order, the court ordered an asset freeze, and appointed a receiver to take charge of the companies.
According to the FTC's complaint, the defendants used sites on the World Wide Web, unsolicited e-mail, and newspaper advertisements to promote and sell their paralegal training and employment opportunity kits. Many of the ads and/or e-mails contained representations such as: "Make Over $200 An Hour," and "You Can Process Simple Divorces and Bankruptcies From Home and Make Over $200 An Hour in as little as 30 Days!!!"; and urged consumers to call a toll-free number. Consumers who called were told that in exchange for a payment of $395-$495, they would receive a work-at-home kit that would provide all they needed to get started in performing paralegal services, such as preparing divorce or bankruptcy petitions. Consumers were told by the defendants that no advance degrees or prior paralegal experience were needed, and that the defendants would provide all the necessary training and support and would issue kit purchasers a paralegal diploma. The kits included (1) computer software; (2) a set of six audio tapes that "explains everything about the industry;" (3) a training video; (4) over 88 sample forms, including forms for creating a simple divorce or bankruptcy; and (5) training manuals. The defendants also promised to provide kit buyers with ongoing assistance, and assured kit buyers that once they passed various qualifying tests, they would provide a steady stream of case referrals - as many as "10-20 cases per week" - and would pay them $30 per case. Purchasers of the kits also were promised that they would be assigned personal "trainers" who would help them correctly complete the qualifying exams.
The FTC's complaint charges that purchasers of the kits do not earn the levels of income promised by the defendants, nor do they receive case referrals. The complaint also charges that the material contained in the kits and the support promised by the defendants is inadequate to properly train consumers to become paralegals. In addition, the complaint charges that the defendants failed to disclose material information to kit purchasers; 1) the fact that the defendants limit the number of people who can pass the qualifying test; and 2) the fact that under some circumstances, completing and filing legal forms on behalf of consumers could constitute the unauthorized practice of law under some state laws.
The FTC has asked the court to issue a permanent injunction, and to order the defendants to pay redress to consumers. A hearing on the FTC's request for a preliminary injunction has been scheduled for November 9, 2000.
The FTC filed its complaint in the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, under seal, on October 16, 2000. The seal was lifted October 20. The Commission vote authorizing staff to file the complaint was 5-0. The FTC received substantial assistance in this matter from the Office of the Attorney General in Tampa.
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 complaint 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 www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies worldwide. The FTC has a consumer brochure, Could 'Biz Opp' Offers Be Out for Your Coffers?, which offers tips on how to spot and avoid these scams. Copies of the brochure are available from the FTC's Consumer Response Center or at www.ftc.gov/bizop. The FTC also has a booklet for classified ad managers, Screening Ads: A Guide for the Media.
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Bureau of Consumer Protection
(Civil Action No. 8:00-CV-2114-T-27E)
(FTC File No.: 002 3288) (paralink)