FTC Seeks Return of More Than $275 Million to Consumers
At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a federal court has frozen the assets of corporations and an individual behind a far-reaching Internet enterprise that allegedly made more than $275 million by luring consumers into deceptive “trial” memberships, and bogus government-grant and money-making schemes.
The court froze the assets of 61 corporations (collectively known as “I Works”) and their alleged ringleader, Jeremy Johnson. It placed these defendants’ assets under the control of a court-supervised receiver to help ensure that funds are available for consumer restitution when the case is concluded. In December 2010, the FTC alleged that I Works lured consumers into “trial” memberships for bogus government-grant and money-making schemes, and then repeatedly charged monthly fees for these and other memberships the consumers never ordered.
According to the FTC’s complaint, the operation used websites that pitch various money-making programs or tout the availability of government grants to pay personal expenses. The websites offer “free” information at no risk and ask consumers to provide their credit or debit card numbers to pay a small shipping and handling fee such as $1.99. But when consumers provide their billing information, I Works charges them a hefty one-time fee of up to $129.95 and monthly recurring fees of up to $59.95 for the advertised programs, and other monthly fees for unrelated programs.
The FTC’s complaint alleges that this scheme has caused more than 500,000 consumers to seek chargebacks – reversals of charges to their credit cards or debits to their bank accounts. The high number of chargebacks landed the defendants in VISA’s and MasterCard’s chargeback monitoring programs, resulted in millions of dollars in fines for excessive chargebacks, and prevented the defendants from getting access to the credit card and debit card billing systems using their own names. To keep the scam going, the defendants tricked banks into giving them continued access to these billing systems by creating 51 shell companies with figurehead officers, and by providing the banks with phony “clean” versions of their websites.
According to the FTC, the defendants, which include the 61 corporations, Johnson, and nine other individuals, violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting that government grants are available for paying personal expenses, that consumers are likely to obtain grants by using the defendants’ program, that users of their money-making products will earn substantial income, and that their offers are free or risk-free. The complaint also alleges that they failed to disclose that consumers who pay a nominal shipping and handling fee would be enrolled in expensive plans that charge fees until consumers cancel, and that they charged consumers’ credit cards and debited their bank accounts without their consent.
The FTC further alleges that the defendants’ websites featured deceptive positive reviews and deceptive testimonials that misrepresented the benefits of their grant services. The FTC also alleges that they violated the Electronic Fund Transfer Act and Regulation E by debiting consumers’ bank accounts without their signed written consent and without providing consumers with a copy of the written authorization.
The defendants are listed here.
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 1,800 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.
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