Following an investigation coordinated with the British Columbia Ministry of Attorney General, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ("RCMP"), the Federal Trade Commission today announced it has filed a civil complaint against the purveyors of a well-organized scheme designed to defraud consumers through the sale of credit card "protection" insurance and "debt consolidation" programs. The FTC's complaint seeks preliminary relief, including an ex parte temporary restraining order and asset freeze against the defendants, as well as permanent injunctive relief and restitution.
As detailed in the Commission's complaint, the defendants fraudulently marketed credit card loss protection and debt consolidation services, primarily to seniors, in violation of the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule ("TSR"), which prohibits the payment of fees in advance of obtaining a loan offered over the phone. The complaint was filed against: 1) OPCO International Agencies, Inc. ("OPCO"); 2) 0590739 BC Ltd.; 3) Fraud Watch Services, Inc. ("FWS"); 4) Central Corporate Services, Inc. ("CCS"); 5) American Fraud Watch Services, Inc. ("AFWS"); 6) Customer Services International ("CSI") Nevada, Inc.; 7) Debt Services International, Inc ("DSI"); 8) Global Horizons, Inc. ("GHI"); and 9) Wayne Farrow, Carrie E. Hope and Mark E. Wilson, as individuals. OPCO, FWS and CCS are based in Canada. AFWS is based in both British Columbia and Nevada. CSI, DSI and GHI are based in Nevada but operate from Canada. Defendant Wilson is the sole owner of all the corporate defendants, Farrow is the CEO of AFWS, and Hope is the vice president of operations for AFWS.
The FTC contends that the defendants, when marketing credit card protection services, misrepresented their identity to imply an affiliation with consumers' credit card issuers and used scare tactics to market their programs, telling consumers that their credit card numbers were accessible to criminals via the Internet, and that unless they purchased "protection" services, they could be held liable for unauthorized charges if thieves gained access to this information. However, under Federal law consumers are liable for at most $50 of unauthorized charges and, in fact, credit card companies will sometimes waive this liability. The defendants typically charged $299 for their protection services.
When marketing debt consolidation services, the defendants allegedly told consumers that for $397 they would obtain a low-interest loan that could be used to consolidate their credit card debt. In reality, all consumers received was a list of banks offering low-interest credit card loans.
The FTC alleged that in addition to telemarketing directly through their own call centers, the defendants provided products, scripts, customer service and credit card-processing services to others engaged in deceptive telemarketing.
Finally, the complaint states, the defendants often posted charges on consumers' credit cards without their authorization; misrepresented their refund policy; and failed to promptly, clearly and conspicuously state, as required by the TSR, that the purpose of their call was to sell goods or services.
In granting the FTC request, the court authorized preliminary relief, including an ex parte temporary restraining order and asset freeze against the defendants. The Commission is further seeking a permanent injunction and other equitable relief, as the court deems warranted.
The FTC coordinated with the British Columbia Ministry of Attorney General, the FBI and the RCMP through the RCMP's Project Emptor Taskforce. The Taskforce coordinates and conducts investigations of fraudulent telemarketers operating in British Columbia and targeting Canadian and U.S. consumers. In addition to the FTC action, the Ministry of Attorney General has filed a civil action and obtained a freeze on Canadian defendants' assets. The FTC and the Ministry received investigative assistance from the RCMP and the FBI.
CREDIT CARD PROTECTION CONSUMER EDUCATION
The FTC's Office of Consumer and Business Education has developed three products regarding credit card "protection" offers and the use of credit cards in general. Each is available from the Commission's Consumer Response Center (see address and phone number below) and from the FTC web site at www.ftc.gov. The first is a consumer alert on the general issue of credit card loss protection offers. It cautions consumers: "Don't buy the pitch-and don't buy the 'loss protection' insurance." The second is a bookmark designed to help consumers understand their rights concerning credit card billing procedures, the Fair Credit Billing Act, and receiving credits when billed items are in dispute. The third, a brochure in the Commission's "Facts for Consumers" series, provides more detailed information on fair credit billing, including the types of disputes covered, what to do if you think your bill is incorrect, and other important consumer billing rights.
Specific tips to help consumers recognize and avoid credit card protection fraud include being wary of promoters who:
- tell you that you are liable for more than $50 of unauthorized charges on your credit card account;
- tell you that you need credit card loss protection because computer hackers can access your credit card number and charge thousands of dollars to your account;
- tell you that a computer bug could make it easy for thieves to place unauthorized charges on your credit card account; and
- tell you (or imply) that they are calling from "the security department" and want to activate the protection features on your new card.
The Commission vote to authorize the staff to file a Section 13(b) complaint seeking preliminary relief including an ex parte temporary restraining order and asset freeze, along with permanent relief, was 5-0. The complaint was filed under seal on February 21, 2001. The judgment and order was issued by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington on February 21, 2001. The seal was lifted on February 26, 2001.
NOTE: A complaint is not a finding or ruling that the named party has violated the law. 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 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. 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. 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.
(FTC File No. 002-3097)
(Court File No. CO1-2053R, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington)
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