As law enforcement officials, consumer groups, and Hispanic leaders met in Los Angeles today to discuss new ways to fight fraud in the community, the Federal Trade Commission announced five law enforcement actions against scammers targeting Hispanic consumers. The actions announced at today’s Hispanic Law Enforcement and Outreach Forum involved a range of products and services, including advance-fee credit cards, at-home English-language and auto-mechanic training programs, a medical-discount plan, weight-loss products, music CDs, and credit-repair services. The FTC also released new consumer information about medical discount plans.
“All of us at this workshop are committed to continuing the fight against fraudsters who prey on the Hispanic community,” said Tom Syta, Assistant Director of the FTC’s Western Region. “As the cases announced today show, we are getting results and will not let scammers hide behind Spanish-language ads.”
Today’s workshop was sponsored by the FTC, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, and the Department of Consumer Affairs for the County of Los Angeles. It is the latest in a series of workshops by the FTC and the USPIS that aim to identify local problems and discuss ways to address them; facilitate open dialogue with local government, consumer groups, and members of the Hispanic community on issues affecting Hispanic consumers; and share consumer education resources to help local communities conduct outreach about fraud, how to prevent it, and where to report it. Workshops already have been held in Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and Phoenix. Events in Cleveland, Las Vegas, and San Diego, among other cities, are planned for next year.
Law Enforcement Actions
At the Los Angeles event, the FTC announced the following law enforcement actions, including two new complaints with proposed settlements, two settlements of previously filed actions, and one summary judgment with the remaining defendants in a previously filed case:
Call Center Express / Pro Line
A federal district court judge issued an order permanently banning the defendants from marketing any credit products and requiring them to pay almost $14 million in consumer redress for falsely promising consumers major credit cards in exchange for advance fees. The order also prohibits them from violating the FTC Act or the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR).
In granting the FTC’s motion for summary judgment, the judge upheld FTC charges against the defendants, Call Center Express Corporation, Pro Line Card LLC, Edgar Alirio Gonzalez, Pablo Jose Martinez, and Carlos Felipe Mendez. The defendants ran television advertisements on national, Spanish-language television networks misrepresenting their cards as major credit cards. Consumers were charged fees from $149 to $299 to get the credit cards, only to find out they could use the cards only to purchase merchandise from the defendants’ catalogues or Web sites. Further, contrary to the written card agreements, the defendants did not provide refunds to most consumers who requested them. The final judgment was entered by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on September 26, 2005.
Defendants will pay $940,000 in consumer redress to settle FTC charges they deceptively marketed their at-home instructional programs to Spanish-speaking consumers. The FTC alleged the defendants’ telemarketers identified themselves as being affiliated with a government program that had selected the consumer to receive subsidized English-language or auto-mechanic training. According to the FTC, whether or not consumers accepted the offer, a package of videotapes, computer disks, and workbooks would arrive C.O.D., costing between $150 to $300. The FTC alleged that consumers who refused the package or called to cancel often would receive a call from a second telemarketer, posing as an attorney, and threatening legal action if the consumer did not pay.
The stipulated order announced today imposes a $6.6 million suspended judgment against defendants FGH International Corp.; Inti California; FGH International S.R.L.; Jhonny Rojas; and Wilson Rojas. The $6.6 million judgment is suspended upon the defendants’ payment of $940,000 to the FTC, due to the defendants’ inability to pay more. If the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial status, they will be responsible for the full amount. The stipulated order prohibit the defendants from 1) selling instructional programs and 2) telemarketing any good or service, unless they first post a $1,000,000 performance bond. The order also prohibits them from making misrepresentations in connection with marketing instructional programs or any other good or service, and bars them from violating the Telemarketing Sales Rule, including its Do Not Call provisions. The stipulated final judgment was entered in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on October 11, 2005.
Platinum Health Plus, LLC
Consumers who thought they were buying health insurance, but ended up in a medical discount program, all will receive full restitution following an FTC complaint and consent
decree. The defendants, charged with running national ads on Spanish-language television stations that strongly implied they were selling health insurance instead of just access to medical providers who offer discounted fees, will pay more than $294,000 in consumer redress. The FTC charged that small “not health insurance” disclaimers flashing on-screen for eight seconds were inadequate to offset the strongly implied claims made in the ad. Consumers who enrolled in the program paid hundreds of dollars each and were promised an “unconditional” 30-day money-back guarantee. The FTC alleged that, in reality, the defendants’ refund policy only applied to consumers who had paid a medical provider for services under the plan within 30 days of activating their memberships.
The FTC’s complaint named Platinum Health Plus, LLC; Fiesta Marketing, LLC; Telemedia, LLC; and their owners, Michael P. Garcia and Alexander R. Garcia, as defendants. The complaint alleged the defendants misrepresented that Platinum Health Plus was an insurance plan and that Platinum offered an unconditional 30-day money-back guarantee, and did not adequately explain the terms for the actual refund policy. To settle the charges, the defendants cannot make material misrepresentations about any program that offers access to or payments for medical products or services, including misrepresenting that a program is health insurance. Further, they must clearly disclose the terms of any refund policy they offer. The complaint and consent decree were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on September 8, 2005; the consent decree was entered on September 15, 2005.
The FTC’s new consumer alert, in English and Spanish, about medical discount programs is described below.
The marketers of a weight-loss product and a music collection will pay $231,000 in consumer redress to settle FTC charges that they made deceptive claims in infomercials shown on Spanish-language television stations. The defendants sold a weight-loss product for $179 under the brand names “Svelt Body Complete” and “Imagen Enlínea.” The FTC alleged that the defendants’ claims that the product would cause substantial weight loss without diet or exercise were bogus “Red Flags.” The ongoing “Red Flag” education campaign by the FTC helps media outlets and others spot weight-loss ads that are too good to be true. The campaign has guidelines for spotting deceptive claims, including seven bogus claims that are almost always false. The defendants also sold a Spanish-language music collection called “Colección Caliente” (Hot Collection). The ads for the $198 Hot Collection claimed it contained 1,500 hit songs on 60-70 CDs. The FTC alleged that, instead of songs by the original artists heard in defendants’ infomercials, consumers received mostly poor quality covers by unknown bands.
The stipulated final order announced today permanently bars the defendants from representing that their weight loss products cause rapid, substantial, or permanent weight loss. More broadly, the defendants are required to have substantiation for future claims about the benefits or safety of any health-related product or service. In addition, the final order forbids the defendants from making any misrepresentations regarding any goods or services, including “authenticity, identity, origin, or that music collections on compact discs will contain songs by the original artists as advertised.” The final order also contains a suspended judgment of $1.8 million, which will be due immediately if the defendants fail to pay $231,000 or are found to have misrepresented their assets. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on September 16, 2005; the stipulated final order was entered on September 22, 2005.
Service Brokers Associates
Defendants offering credit-repair services are barred from violating the Credit Repair Organizations Act (CROA) as part of a settlement with the FTC. In its complaint, the FTC alleged the defendants violated the CROA by receiving payments from consumers before they performed any credit-repair services, not giving consumers a statement of their credit file rights, and not giving a cancellation rights notice on contracts.
The defendants, Service Brokers Associates, Inc. and its president, Daniel Gonzalez, also using the name USA Credit YES, sold credit-repair services to English- and Spanish-speaking consumers for an advance fee of $300 to $400 through the Internet. The defendants also relied on referrals from businesses, such as car dealerships and mortgage companies. The settlement contains a $370,000 judgment, suspended based on the defendants’ inability to pay. If it is found they misrepresented their financial status, they will be responsible for the full amount. The stipulated final judgment was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on August 30, 2005.
The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file in each case was 4-0.
The FTC has issued a consumer alert, available in English and Spanish, warning consumers to be cautious when they see advertisements offering an “Affordable Health Care Plan” or “No Deductible or Co-pays.” Often, these ads are for a medical discount plan, not health insurance. While health insurance generally pays the consumer or their health care provider for medical bills, a medical discount plan instead offers a list of providers who are willing to offer “discounts” on some of their services.
In Medical Discount Plans: They’re Not Health Insurance the FTC offers tips for consumers to consider when considering a medical discount plan. The FTC and many states have found that although some medical discount plans provide legitimate discounts that benefit their members, some take consumers’ money and offer very little in return. The FTC recommends that consumers:
- ask for a list of providers who participate in the plan and call them before they pay money;
- investigate details of the plan closely, including the refund policy;
- calculate what the total payments for the plan will be for a given amount of time, including up front fees, monthly fees and other costs, to see if the cost of program is more than the anticipated savings; and
- attempt to negotiate a similar discount directly with their medical provider, without joining the medical discount group.
Also, the FTC today announced a new partnership with East Los Angeles College, through which the school will provide more than 25,000 copies of “Getting Credit” to students in both English and Spanish. The publication explains how to build and maintain good credit. The FTC is also announcing the launch of the “Getting Credit” Web site in Spanish, available at
The Hispanic Outreach Initiative
The Hispanic Law Enforcement and Outreach Initiative, formally introduced in April 2004, aims to detect, stop, and prevent consumer fraud against Hispanics. Since the launch of the Initiative, the FTC has announced 31 cases involving Spanish-language frauds. In addition to a national Hispanic workshop held in May 2004 and a series of follow-up regional workshops throughout the country, the FTC has translated more than 100 publications into Spanish and posted them on the FTC’s Spanish-language Web site: www.ftc.gov/espanol. The Web site has been accessed about 900,000 times this year, an increase of 150 percent over last year.
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.
NOTE: These stipulated final orders are for settlement purposes only and do not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. Stipulated final order require approval by the court and have the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the documents mentioned in this press 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 in English or Spanish (bilingual counselors are available to take complaints), 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.
Office of Public Affairs
Bureau of Consumer Protection,
(Coordinator for the Spanish Language Initiative)
FTCs Southeast Region,
(Call Center Express)
Bureau of Consumer Protection,
FTCs Northwest Region,
(Platinum Health Plus)
FTCs Western Region,
FTCs Southwest Region,
(Service Brokers Associates)