In what may be the most far-reaching Federal Trade Commission law enforcement sweep ever against "in-bound" telemarketing fraud - where consumers call companies based on classified ads, Internet banners, or other promotions - the FTC today announced the filing of 11 federal district court complaints. Among those charged were the purveyors of advance-fee loans and credit cards, at-home medical billing programs, work-at-home envelope stuffing schemes, and a "consumer protection" agency that was, in reality, no more than a shill for a vending machine business opportunity.
As detailed in the attached table, in each case brought through "Operation Dialing for Deception" the Commission charged the defendants with violating the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), or both. In all 11 complaints, the FTC is either seeking - or has received - relief ranging from temporary restraining orders to preliminary or permanent injunctions, as well as a freeze of the defendants' assets and the appointment of a receiver to oversee their finances pending trial, where appropriate.
"Consumers spotting a classified ad or telephone pole promotion and acting on their curiosity by calling the number face the same risk of being misled, deceived, or defrauded as they do when responding to a high-pressure sales call from a telemarketer," said FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Howard Beales III. "If the offer appears too good to be true, be on guard."
"White collar crime is on the increase and a favorite weapon of choice is the telephone. Don't abandon common sense just because you initiated the call, and it would be wise to check with the Better Business Bureau first," Ken Hunter, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, advised consumers.
A Focus on Medical Billing Scams
Beales said that in addition to the general message that consumers should be careful when calling companies in response to classified ads or similar promotions, five of the cases filed by the FTC illustrate the fact that consumers interested in working at home doing medical billing should be particularly wary of pitches that promise easy money with little or no effort. While the telemarketers may provide lists of local doctors they say are interested in having their billing done by consumers, many times these doctors have not consented to have their information distributed, are not looking for outside help, or may need more skilled employees to complete this technical task.
"I would advise someone looking to start his or her own medical billing business to learn about the challenges involved in medical billing, including the complex laws which apply to [it]," said Cyndee Weston, Executive Director of the American Medical Billing Association. "I would also advise them that up to one year of training may be necessary in order to even begin to market his or her medical billing services to healthcare providers."
In 2001, the FTC and 43 Better Business Bureaus (BBBs) across the United States and Canada surfed the Internet and newspaper classifieds looking for ads promising consumers they could make fast, easy money running medical billing businesses from home. Hundreds of ads from dozens of companies were identified, with the worst purveyors of medical billing fraud targeted by the five cases announced today. The remainder received warning letters that their practices may be in violation of federal law.
The Commission's Complaints
The 11 complaints announced today were filed against the following companies and individuals for alleged violations of either the Federal Trade Commission Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, or both. The FTC's allegations are described below:
- Credit Enhancement Services, LLC, et al. Based in Camden, New Jersey and Woodhaven, New York, the defendants allegedly used postcard mailers and in-bound telemarketing to pitch advance-fee credit cards to consumers for a one-time fee ranging from $219.99 to $289. According to the FTC, some consumers who made the payments for their "pre-approved" and "unsecured" card got nothing, while others simply received an information package welcoming them to a discount buying card service, along with applications for major credit cards (for an additional fee).
- Antoine J. Peissel, d/b/a The Woodway Group, et al. Operating out of telemarketing boiler rooms in Houston, Texas, the defendants allegedly operated an advance-fee scheme, originating through "want ads" that promised consumers a loan or other extension of credit after they paid a "processing fee" of between $69 and $89. Few, if any, consumers ever received the loan promised them.
- Capital Choice Consumer Credit, Inc., et al. Operating a large-scale advance-fee scam based in Miami, Florida, the defendants allegedly either debited customers' bank accounts of $199.95 or obtained payments of $43 after promising to provide a credit card with a $4,000 to $7,000 credit limit. For their money, however, consumers only received an "approval certificate" and application package, and were told that to "activate" their card they had to pay even more money up front. The defendants also sent consumers a blue plastic card - that was not a bank card - for use only with the defendants' merchandise catalog.
- Universal Bancom, LLC and John Sarabia, d/b/a Nissan Bancorp. Based in Chatsworth, California, the defendants allegedly misrepresented to consumers that they could get a Visa, MasterCard, or other major credit card by paying a $287.25 fee. They also did not disclose that the card was actually a merchant card, not a bank card; that the card could only be used to purchase items from the defendants' catalog; or that consumers could only pay for 50-75 percent of the cost of the items with the card.
- Electronic Processing Services, Inc., et al. Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, the defendants marketed a $480 medical billing work-at-home opportunity, allegedly misrepresenting that the doctors whose names were supplied were likely to hire consumers to process their billing claims, and that consumers could expect to make a certain amount of money as medical billers.
- International Trader, d/b/a Premier Business Solutions, et al. A Nevada corporation, based in Los Angeles, California, the defendants marketed work-at-home medical billing opportunities through classified advertisements for $189. Through their telemarketing pitch, they allegedly misrepresented: 1) that they would provide consumers with the names of doctors likely to use them to process billing claims from home; 2) that consumers buying their materials could expect to earn a specific level of income (between $15 and $45 per hour); and 3) that consumers could readily obtain a refund upon request.
- Medical-Billing.Com, Inc., d/b/a Professional Management Consultants, et al. A Texas corporation based in Carrollton, Texas, the defendants sold their medical billing package for between $3,500 and $9,500. In telemarketing their program, they allegedly made numerous misrepresentations, including promises that:
1) they would help recruit doctors who would use the consumers to process their billing; 2) customers would earn substantial income providing billing services for health care professionals; and 3) they would give customers a full refund if the program did not meet their performance expectations.
- Electronic Medical Billing, Inc., et al. A Nevada corporation operating in Mission Viejo, California, the defendants sold a medical billing work-at-home business opportunity to consumers for $325. They allegedly misrepresented: 1) that the doctors whose names they provided to consumers were likely to hire them to do their billing; and 2) that consumers could expect to make a certain level of income through medical billing (between $25,000 and $50,000 a year, according to their classified ads).
- Physicians Healthcare Development (PHD Billing), Inc., et al. Based in Burbank, California, the defendants pitched a work-at-home medical billing opportunity for $319 to $425, telling consumers that they could make between $3 and $15 for each claim processed. They allegedly misrepresented that the system they sell will instantly enable consumers to launch a home-based billing business, that consumers can earn substantial income for this work, and that the doctors whose names they provided were prepared to hire the consumers to process their claims.
- Terrance Maurice Howard, d/b/a True Techniques and Absolute Mailers. Based in San Antonio, Texas, the defendants marketed an at-home envelope stuffing business opportunity that they deceptively told consumers could earn between $2,000 and $4,000 a week. They also allegedly deceptively represented that after paying an initial "registration" fee, consumers could expect to make $5 for each envelope stuffed.
- Affiliated Vendors Association, Inc. et al. A for-profit company operating out of Grand Prairie, Texas, the defendants allegedly ran a sham Better Business Bureau-type organization that gave consumers glowing reports about its members - sellers of vending machine business opportunities. The company was allegedly paid by the vending machine sellers for pitching their businesses to consumers over the phone, never told consumers of its connection to the sellers, and misrepresented the support and services that they would provide to business opportunity purchasers.
Relief Sought or Received
In filing each complaint (and accepting the consent with Nissan Bancorp) the FTC is seeking - or has received - relief to immediately stop the violations alleged, freeze the defendants' assets pending trial, and/or obtain a receiver to ensure all assets are maintained pending trial.
In the following cases, the Commission has either requested or received a temporary restraining order (TRO) to stop the alleged illegal activities: The Woodway Group, Capital Choice Consumer Credit, Electronic Processing Services, Premier Business Solutions, Electronic Medical Billing, PHD Billing, True Techniques, and Affiliated Vendors Association. In the remaining cases, Credit Enhancement Services and Professional Management Consultants, as well as in Affiliated Vendors Association (following the court-granted TRO), the Commission has either asked for or received a preliminary injunction against the companies.
In the following cases, the FTC has either requested or received an asset freeze: Credit Enhancement Services, The Woodway Group, Capital Choice Consumer Credit, Electronic Processing Services, Premier Business Solutions, Electronic Medical Billing, PHD Billing, True Techniques, and Affiliated Vendors Association.
Finally, in the following cases, the Commission has either requested or received the appointment of a receiver: Capital Choice Consumer Credit, Premier Business Solutions, and Electronic Medical Billing.
Under the stipulated final order reached with Universal Bancom and Sarabia d/b/a Nissan Bancorp, the defendants will be banned from selling, or assisting others in selling or marketing, merchant cards. They will also be barred from misrepresenting any fact material to a consumer's decision to buy goods, and from any future violation of the TSR.
The Commission vote authorizing staff to file each complaint and to accept the stipulated final order in the Nissan Bancorp matter was 5-0. The complaints were filed in the following U.S. district courts: 1) Electronic Processing Service, District of Nevada; 2) Premier Business Solutions, Central District of California; 3) Electronic Medical Billing, Central District of California; 4) PHD Billing, Central District of California; 5) Professional Management Consultants, Northern District of Texas; 6) Credit Enhancement Services, Eastern District of New York; 7) The Woodway Group, Southern District of Texas, Houston Division; 8) Capital Choice Consumer Credit, Southern District of Florida; 9) Affiliated Vendors Association, Northern District of Texas; 10) True Techniques, Western District of Texas; and 11) Nissan Bancorp and Universal Bancom, Central District of California.
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 all of the BBBs nationwide and in Canada that participated in the 2001 Medical Billing Project. The Commission also thanks: the State of Texas' Office of the Attorney General; the State of New Jersey's Department of Law and Public Safety, Office of Consumer Protection; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Southern California Division and Los Angeles Division; the Orange County, California, Sheriff's Department; the U.S. Attorney's Office in Santa Ana, California; the BBB of the Southland (California); the BBB of Houston; the District Attorney's Office for Harris County, Texas; the U.S. Postal Service in Houston; the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs; and the State of Florida Attorney General's Office for their help investigating and bringing the cases filed as part of "Operation Dialing for Deception."
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 and stipulated final order 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.
(FTC File Nos., Civ. Action Nos.: Operation Dialing for Deception, P027601; Electronic Processing Service, 022-3035, CV-S-02-0500-L.H.-R.S.; Premier Business Solutions, 022-3091, 02-02701; Electronic Medical Billing, 022tant, 022-3049, 3-0-3094, CV SAO2-368AHS (AN); PHD Billing, 012-3231, CV-02-2936RMT; Professional Management Consul2CV 0702P; Credit Enhancement Services, 022-3049, CV-02-2134; The Woodway Group, 022-3058, H-02-1237; Capital Choice Consumer Credit, 022-3067, 02-21050-CIV-Ungaro-Benages; Affiliated Vendors Association, 012-3210, 3-02CV-679-D; True Techniques, 022-3057, SA02CA0344; Nissan Bancorp and Universal Bancom, 012-3109; CV02-03039 FMC (FMOx))
- Media Contact:
- Mitchell J. Katz,
Office of Public Affairs
- Staff Contact:
- Steven Baker or Katherine Schnack,
FTC Midwest Region Office
312-960-5634 or 312-960-5611
- Other Contact:
- Cyndee Weston, Executive Director
American Medical Billing Association