Web Sites Pitched Easy to Use Program and $15 Billion of Free Money
A U.S. district court has shut down several Web sites that scammers have been using to falsely claim that they can help consumers get free government grant money, the Federal Trade Commission announced today.
At the request of the FTC, the court issued an order closing the Web sites of several related companies that falsely promised consumers that their “Easy to Use Program,” Grant Connect, could help people “instantly find the grant that’s right for [them],” while using pictures of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and the American flag to give the false impression that they were connected to the government. The FTC also charged the companies with using bogus testimonials, failing to disclose the actual cost of their product, bundling multiple other products together for sale without adequate disclosures, and debiting consumers’ bank accounts on a recurring basis without permission.
On July 28, 2009, the court entered an order that temporarily halts these companies’ illegal activities. Subsequently, five of the 12 defendants in the case agreed to a preliminary injunction halting these practices until the matter is decided at trial. The court has set a preliminary injunction hearing for the remaining defendants for September 11, 2009. The FTC is seeking to permanently stop these practices and force the companies to return their ill-gotten gains so the funds can be used to reimburse consumers who were defrauded.
According to the FTC, the operators sell many products online, including Grant Connect, which they describe as “a unique, consumer-friendly US government grant program that delivers all of the tools for the consumer to search multiple databases, write grant proposals, and deliver polished plans...” While the companies claim that consumers will be charged only a few dollars at most, they instead bundle other products and services, such as identity theft protection services, credit offers, and purported health benefits plans with their offer, ultimately charging consumers as much as $70 per month.
Using an affiliated network of Web sites, including www.grantconnectoffer.com and others, they make claims such as: “Grant Connect - $15 Billion of Free Money Available;” “Over $10 Billion Issued in 2009 Already;” and “EASY TO USE PROGRAM: Instantly find the Grant that’s right for you!” They also claim that Grant Connect “makes the process FAST and EASY, so all you have to worry about is where to spend your money!” In addition, the Grant Connect site features “testimonials,” including photos of people who supposedly got grants from the company, including one that states, “It’s so easy! I got my first grant for $300,000. All I have to do is search and click.”
To further persuade consumers into purchasing their product, the Grant Connect site has used images of the President and Vice President in an effort to suggest an affiliation with the U.S. government. For a time, the site featured a photo of President Obama and Vice President Biden standing in front of an American flag, next to the Grant Connect logo and a caption that read, “CHANGE Is Here! $15 BILLION in FREE Government MONEY for you!”
Unfortunately for consumers, according to the FTC, Grant Connect provides little more than outdated, useless information and worthless grant writing “tools.” Few, if any, grants are available to consumers who sign up for the program, and those that are require applicants to meet strict eligibility requirements before they are even considered for the grant.
In addition, while the Web sites tell consumers they can get the Grant Connect service for a one-time fee of as little as 99 cents to $2.78, they do not adequately disclose that buyers will be automatically signed up for other products and services costing up to $70 a month. While the Web site contains some disclosure language in small, densely packed type, few consumers realize they will be charged monthly for services such as “SmartHealth Gold medical and lifestyle benefits” and “VComm International and Long Distance Calling Service” unless they cancel these memberships.
The FTC charged the Grant Connect defendants with violating federal law by: 1) making deceptive representations regarding Grant Connect, 2) failing to adequately disclose the material terms and conditions of their offers, and 3) violating the Electronic Funds Transfer Act by debiting consumers’ bank accounts on a recurring basis without their authorization.
The Commission vote authorizing the complaint was 4-0. It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada on July 27, 2009. The complaint names Grant Connect, LLC; Global Gold, Inc.; Horizon Holdings, LLC; O’Connell Gray, LLC; Pink LP, Vantex Group, LLC; Vertek Group, LLC; Rachel A. Cook, manager of Vantex, and Vertek; James J. Gray, managing member of Grant Connect, Horizon Holdings, and O’Connell Gray; Steven R. Henriksen, president and owner of Global Gold; Juliette M. Kimoto, owner of Vertek and General Partner of Pink; and Randy D. O’Connell, managing member of Horizon Holdings and O’Connell Gray.
The five defendants who agreed to the preliminary injunction entered by the court on August 18, 2009, are: Grant Connect, LLC; Horizon Holdings, LLC; O’Connell Gray, LLC; James J. Gray; and Randy D. O’Connell.
The FTC appreciates the assistance of United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada, the Better Business Bureau of Northern Nevada, the Better Business Bureau of Southern Nevada, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and Reno Police Department (Financial Crimes/Computer Crimes Department) in this matter.
The FTC has announced several other grant fraud cases as part of the “Operation Short Change” law enforcement sweep targeting economic stimulus frauds, as well as a complaint against a company that promised consumers “guaranteed” $25,000 government grants. Information about these cases can be found on the Commission’s Web site at: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/07/shortchange.shtm and http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/07/gwi.shtm.
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 complaint can be found on the FTC’s Web site and as a link to this press release. The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,500 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s Web site provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.
(FTC File No. 092-3126; Civ. No. 2:09-CV-01349)
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