Operators Targeted U.S. Consumers with Pitch for Nonexistent Credit Cards
At the Commission’s request, a federal district court entered final orders against three remaining defendants, successfully concluding the FTC’s long-running case against the large cross-border telemarketing scheme known as Centurion Financial Benefits. The court orders require the three defendants, Frank Bellissimo, Tony Andreopoulos, and Catreena Alexandra Marchewka, to halt their illegal telemarketing activities and bar them from violating the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule. They also contain monetary judgments of almost $10 million – the amount of consumer injury caused by the Centurion scam.
The FTC’s Complaint
The FTC’s action charged multiple individual and corporate defendants, all based in Canada, with operating a massive telemarketing scam that defrauded U.S. consumers of millions of dollars by charging for nonexistent credit cards. According to the FTC’s complaint, filed in September 2005, since at least 2004, the defendants used outbound telemarketing to contact consumers in the United States, falsely offering major credit cards, such as MasterCard and Visa, to people who agreed to have the defendants electronically debit their bank accounts for an advance fee of $249. The defendants typically claimed that the credit cards would have a $2,000 credit limit, zero percent interest, and no annual fees, and often targeted their offers at consumers with poor credit histories. Consumers who provided their bank account information did not receive a major credit card. Instead, they were sent an application for either a “stored value card” or “cash card” that had no line of credit associated with it and could be used only if the consumer first transferred funds onto the card.
The complaint named the following as defendants, both individually and as corporate officers: Sean Somma aka Sean Soma, individually and as an officer of corporate defendants Centurion Financial Benefits LLC and 1629936 Ontario Ltd, also d/b/a Spectra Financial Benefits; Antonio Marchese aka Tony Marchese, individually and as an officer of corporate defendant 1644738 Ontario Ltd., also d/b/a Sureway Beneficial, Simple Choice Benefits, and Oxford Financial Benefits; Tony Andreopoulos, individually and as an officer of corporate defendants American Getaway Vacations Inc., Credence Travel Processing Inc., and Topstar Media Inc., also dba Integra Financial Benefits; and Dennis Andreopoulos, individually and as an officer of corporate defendants American Getaway Vacations Inc. and Topstar Media Inc., also d/b/a Integra Financial Benefits.
The complaint also charged Centurion Financial Benefits LLC; 1629936 Ontario Ltd., also dba Centurion Financial Benefits; 1644738 Ontario Ltd, d/b/a Integra Financial Benefits; American Getaway Vacations Inc., also d/b/a Integra Financial Benefits; Credence Travel Processing Inc., d/b/a Integra Financial Benefits; and Topstar Media Inc., also d/b/a Integra Financial Benefits. The FTC filed an amended complaint in December 2006, adding the following corporate and individual defendants to the case: 1648534 Ontario Ltd., d/b/a Sureway Beneficial; 1652242 Ontario Ltd., d/b/a Oxford Financial Alliance and Oxford Financial Benefits; 1656324 Ontario Ltd., d/b/a Simple Choice Financial Benefits; 1466827 Ontario Ltd., d/b/a ESI Employment Solutions, Inc.; 6347738 Canada Inc., d/b/a ESI Contact Inc.; 1571816 Ontario Ltd, d/b/a RNR Holdings and Vu Com Communications; Robert J. Houttuin; Frank Bellissimo; Catreena Alexandra Marchewka; and Sylvain Cholette.
Dennis Andreopoulos later was voluntarily dismissed as a defendant, and on May 9, 2007, the Commission announced a settlement with three defendants – Soma, Marchese, and Cholette. The court granted the FTC’s motion for partial summary judgment against defendant Andreopoulos on September 19, 2007. The final orders announced today resolve the FTC’s charges against Bellissimo, Andreopoulos, and Marchewka, the last of the Centurion defendants.
The Final Orders
The court orders announced today include final judgments and orders for permanent injunction against Bellissimo and Andreopoulos, and a stipulated order for permanent injunction and final judgment (settlement) against Marchewka. The orders bar Bellissimo, Andreopoulos, and Marchewka from: 1) making material misrepresentations about credit cards or any other program, product, or service; 2) violating the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, including its prohibition against charging an advance fee for a guaranteed credit card; and 3) selling their customer lists.
The orders also hold Bellissimo, Andreopoulos, and Marchewka jointly and severally liable for $9.89 million (the total amount of consumer injury associated with their scam). The orders against Bellissimo and Andreopoulos freeze their assets until they have satisfied this judgment. The monetary judgment against Marchewka has been suspended based on her inability to pay. It would become due, however, if it is later found that she misrepresented her financial condition to the Commission. The orders contain record keeping and monitoring provisions designed to ensure future compliance with the FTC Act and the orders.
The Commission voted 5-0 to approve the Marchewka settlement. The settlement and the final judgments against Andreopoulos and Bellissimo were entered in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.
Law Enforcement Assistance & Criminal Charges in Canada
The FTC appreciates the assistance of several U.S. and Canadian law enforcement partners, including the Toronto Strategic Partnership, in conducting this investigation. In addition to the FTC, the Toronto Partnership is composed of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Canada’s Competition Bureau, the Toronto Police Service Fraud Squad’s Telemarketing Section, the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Section, the Ontario Ministry of Government Services, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading.
The Alberta Partnership Against Cross-Border Fraud also assisted in the case. The Alberta Partnership consists of the FTC, Alberta Government Services, the Calgary Police Service, Canada’s Competition Bureau, the Edmonton Police Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The FTC alleged that part of the Centurion telemarketing took place in Calgary, Alberta.
Shortly after the Commission filed its complaint in 2005, Canadian authorities executed search warrants on the telemarketing boiler rooms in Toronto and Calgary and brought criminal charges against the principals. See: http://www.competitionbureau.gc.ca/internet/index.cfm?itemID=1949&lg=e and
http://www.gov.calgary.ab.ca/citybeat/public/2005/09/release.20050927_141328_9398_0. On June 18, 2007, Houttuin and Bellissimo pleaded guilty to criminal charges in Canada. They will be sentenced next month.
NOTE: A stipulated judgment and order is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. Stipulated orders have the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the final orders 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, DC 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 more than 1,600 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Office of Public Affairs
FTC Midwest Region, Chicago