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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Courtesy of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch 

Frauds targeted at consumers threaten to cause significant harm to the American public.  The Justice Department has made it a priority to hold the perpetrators of consumer fraud accountable.  In the past few weeks, we have successfully prosecuted the operators of lottery scams, the promoters of fake business opportunities, and the criminals behind a telemarketing fraud targeting Spanish-speaking customers.  But fraudsters often can’t act alone.  They need access to the banking system to get money from their victims.  And when financial institutions choose to process transactions even though they know the transactions are fraudulent, or willfully ignore clear evidence of fraud, they are profiting from illegal activities as well as breaking federal law.  That’s why we are proud to highlight an important result in one of the first civil cases we have brought against a financial institution for unlawfully facilitating a fraudulent scheme to take money from consumers’ bank accounts.  On April 25, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina entered a consent order and approved a settlement resolving the department’s complaint against Four Oaks Bank.  According to the department’s complaint, Four Oaks unlawfully allowed third party merchants to work through the bank to defraud consumers.  Four Oaks’ clients included a Texas-based third-party payment processor – a company that acts as an intermediary between a bank and a merchant in a financial transaction, and often provides access to the national payment system to a wide variety of merchants.  At a merchant’s direction, a payment processor will originate a debit transaction against an individual consumer’s bank account, receive the consumer’s money into its own bank account, and transmit the money to its merchant client.   Four Oaks, according to the complaint, was specifically informed that many of the transactions requested by the third-party payment processor and facilitated by the bank were reported as fraudulent.  Four Oaks received hundreds of notices from consumers’ banks that the people whose accounts were being charged had not authorized a debit transaction originated by the third-party payment processor.  The bank also knew that at least 13 of the merchants served by the third-party payment processor had over 30 percent of the attempted debit transactions returned or charged back, including one merchant with a return rate of over 70 percent.  (A 30 percent rate is more than 20 times the national average.)  And the bank had substantial evidence of efforts to conceal the true identities of the merchants that were serviced by the third-party payment processor.  Nevertheless, according to the department, Four Oaks permitted the third-party payment processor to originate $2.4 billion of debit transactions against consumers’ bank accounts in exchange for more than $850,000 in fees that were paid to the bank. The consent order approved by the court requires Four Oaks Bank to pay $1 million to the U.S. Treasury as a civil monetary penalty and to forfeit $200,000 to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Consumer Fraud Fund.  It also obligates Four Oaks to comply with a series of measures designed to prevent it from ever again permitting fraudulent merchants access to the national payment system.  Specifically, the order permanently prohibits Four Oaks from providing banking services to any third-party payment processor that serves merchants determined by banking regulators to be high-risk absent a strict regime of investigation and monitoring designed to prevent future consumer fraud.  The Four Oaks case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Sweet of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and Trial Attorneys John W. Burke and James W. Harlow of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch, with assistance from Assistant U.S. Attorney G. Norman Acker, III of the Eastern District of North Carolina.  Investigative assistance was provided by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.  The result in this case demonstrates that banks and third-party payment processors cannot profit from violating federal law.  Of course, we recognize that most of the businesses that use the banking system are not fraudsters.  We’re committed to ensuring that our efforts to combat fraud do not discourage or inhibit the lawful conduct of these honest merchants.  Our goal in investigations like Four Oaks is simply to enforce the laws that make the financial marketplace work for consumers.

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Consumer Protection
Friday, March 7, 2014
Courtesy of Stuart F. Delery, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Those who violate consumer protection laws can cause devastating harm, often hitting our most vulnerable consumers the hardest. Victims of fraud, misrepresentation, and unsafe drug manufacturing and food production practices can lose significant amounts of hard-earned and much-needed money. But they also face a loss of trust in the marketplace, a loss of confidence in products we need like medicine or food, and a loss of security when we fall victim to a scam. That is why it is critical to expose these insidious practices and hold perpetrators accountable. Or as President Obama said in his proclamation of National Consumer Protection Week: “[O]ur Nation's economy is only as strong as its people, and we recommit to fostering a sense of basic fairness in our marketplace.” For that reason, I am particularly proud of the work the Justice Department’s Consumer Protection Branch, a part of the Civil Division, is doing to enforce federal consumer protection laws and protect our communities. We employ all of the tools at our disposal—administrative, civil, and criminal—to protect consumers from the misdeeds that cause harm. But we also know this is a team effort. So, we collaborate with other federal agencies and state partners—sharing information, data and investigative practices where we can–and we engage in vibrant collaboration with the consumer advocacy community. Without effective enforcement, those who prey on consumers will feel free to continue. So, we are fighting fraud and misrepresentation wherever they may lurk, recognizing that violations of the federal consumer protection laws come in all shapes and sizes. We continue to bring consumer cases involving financial fraud, including mortgage fraud, lottery scams, abusive and deceptive debt collection practices, and business-opportunity schemes. We are also pursuing new forms of telemarketing fraud, and immigration services fraud. We enforce laws against products that are unsafe for children – such as toys made with toxic materials. And we continue to investigate the sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and violations of the rules for manufacturing and marketing of drugs, medical devices, and food. The following are recent examples of the range of cases we bring to protect our most vulnerable consumers: • We prosecuted two Miami residents who owned and operated companies that targeted Spanish-speaking consumers with a fraudulent telemarketing scheme. The telemarketers lied to consumers about products they would receive and threatened them with false consequences for the failure to pay for shipments of products they did not order and did not want. Both defendants pled guilty and received significant prison sentences; one defendant was sentenced to nine years in prison, the other to ten years in prison. • The recent civil and criminal case against Ranbaxy USA Inc., a subsidiary of Indian generic pharmaceutical manufacturer Ranbaxy Laboratories Limited, demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that pharmaceutical companies comply with current good manufacturing practices so that the drugs they produce have the identity and strength and meet the quality and purity characteristics that they purport to possess. In this ground breaking case—because of its focus on overseas manufacturing —Ranbaxy USA pled guilty to felony charges relating to the manufacture and distribution of certain drugs made at two of Ranbaxy’s manufacturing facilities in India. Ranbaxy agreed to pay a criminal fine and forfeiture totaling $150 million. • A recent injunction against Pennsylvania-based dairy firms and individuals illustrates our vigilance to make sure that the food on our tables is safe to eat. The Consumer Protection Branch obtained a permanent injunction designed to prevent the distribution of foods that contain excessive drug residue in a case concerning the sale of cows that contained antibiotic residues in their edible tissues. Excessive levels of certain drugs in the edible tissues of animals pose a significant public health risk. In this case, the defendants had received numerous warnings from both FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture that their conduct violated the law, and they failed to take steps to correct those violations. Violations of the federal consumer protection laws may not always make the headlines, but they affects millions of Americans each year. As we mark National Consumer Protection Week at the Department of Justice, we reaffirm our commitment to using the authorities we have been given to protect consumers from all manner of harm that these legal violations can cause. The Consumer Protection Branch leads the Justice Department’s efforts to protect the health, safety and economic security of the American consumer. The Branch, together with its partners in the Department’s U.S. Attorney's Offices and in consumer protection agencies, fulfills this mission through civil and criminal enforcement of federal consumer protection statutes across the country. Since 2009, the consumer protection efforts of the Civil Division, working with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country, have led to recoveries of more than $6.7 billion, to over 175 criminal convictions, and to total sentences of confinement exceeding 397 years. Visit www.justice.gov/civil for the latest Civil Division news, www.justice.gov/civil/cpb/cpb_home.html to learn more about the Consumer Protection Branch, or follow the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Twitter @TheJusticeDept.
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Tuesday, March 5, 2013
The following post appears courtesy of the Civil Division's Consumer Protection Branch in honor of National Consumer Protection Week. We are all aware of the importance of making healthy choices when it comes to foods, but some foods may be bad for your health in unexpected ways.  In the last year, Americans have suffered through a significant number of illness outbreaks linked to such common foods as peanut butter, cantaloupe, ricotta cheese, and spinach.  The vast majority of food on our grocery shelves is safe – a historically significant accomplishment for which many people in the private and public sectors should be proud.  Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 48 million people in America – one in six of us – get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases.  The dangers of foodborne illness must spur us all towards increased vigilance and, when appropriate, increased enforcement of our food safety laws. With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice is dedicated to ensuring the safety of foods eaten by Americans every day.   We are also joined in this effort by the vast majority of food producers and preparers – people from around the country who take seriously the crucial importance of preparing good, safe food.  It is illegal for any person to introduce into interstate commerce an “adulterated” food.  Food is adulterated if it contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render the food injurious to health.  For example, if the food contains E. coli, it is adulterated, and the shipment of that food may constitute a crime.  Food is also adulterated if:
  • it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions, and
  • may have become contaminated with filth, or
  • injurious to health. 
Over the last few years, the Federal government has taken a number of steps to better protect the public from dangerous foodborne illnesses.  In January 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act.   The new law squarely puts the focus on preventing food safety problems in the first place and gives the FDA the power to suspend a facility’s ability to sell food in the United States and to detain food that may be adulterated. The Department of Justice also pays close attention to food safety matters.  We will not hesitate to use the many tools at our disposal to protect Americans from unsafe foods.  The Department can initiate civil actions to prevent individuals from distributing adulterated foods.  In more serious violations of the law, the Department and its law enforcement partners can investigate potential criminal violations of the law and seek to charge individuals with criminal violations. Over the last year, the Department of Justice has brought civil cases to prevent companies and individuals from introducing adulterated foods into our markets.  These cases have involved a wide variety of foods, such as tofu and soy products, roasted nuts, whey protein powder, and various fresh and smoked fish.  Of course, in general, these foods are perfectly safe.  But where the Government believes food has or may become adulterated due to processing conditions or other factors, the Government has sought, and Courts have granted, orders requiring defendants to clean up their facilities before they start distributing certain food again. We can also seek criminal charges in appropriate circumstances, as it did, for example, when it charged a number of former executives and employees of the Peanut Corporation of America and a related company with a variety of crimes (including violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act) related to multiple schemes to defraud the company’s customers and mislead those customers as to the presence of salmonella in the company’s peanut products.  These cases demonstrate we will pursue cases where there the public is endangered, and further serve to encourage the food production industry to take utmost care in ensuring the safety of their products.  The Department of Justice will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat common, everyday foods. The government needs partners in this effort.  There are over 171,000 registered food facilities in the United States alone, and a limited supply of inspectors.  Each food producer or processor has a responsibility to maintain its facility in a manner so American consumers know the food they buy is safe.  The majority of food producers take their responsibilities seriously and take the necessary precautions to produce safe food.  But each producer must also know that, if they fail in that responsibility, they will be held to account. We also need you.  Prepare and handle foods safely.  Pay attention to any recall notices.  That way, we can all experience the joys of good food. For more information, visit FoodSafety.gov.  
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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Four years removed from one of the greatest economic crises in history, consumers are still reeling from the aftereffects.  So, many consumers, feeling the crunch of growing credit card debt, are seeking help from companies holding themselves out as debt relief providers.  And getting nothing in return.

These companies generally offer to settle a consumer’s debt with creditors for substantially less than the debt’s principal through monthly payments that the company holds in escrow.  Unfortunately, many of these companies not only fail to fulfill their promises to consumers, but fail to offer any services at all. Companies charge large upfront fees, or multiple hidden fees.  Often, a substantial portion of a consumer’s monthly payment goes to the company’s fees, with little to nothing offered toward reducing the debt’s principal.  The Department of Justice Consumer Protection Branch, in collaboration with its investigative partners, is working to prosecute such companies.  But we need your help.  So, if you are contemplating debt relief services, the following tips may help you avoid scams:
  • Fraudulent debt relief companies will often make claims of being able to negotiate a one-time settlement with creditors that will reduce a consumer’s principal by fifty percent or more.  The Consumer Federation of America, an association of non-profit consumer organizations, warns that such a promise is a virtual impossibility.
  • If you have trouble making credit card payments, immediately call the creditor to work out a payment plan.  If that is unsuccessful, a non-profit credit counseling service may be able to help you.  These services may charge a small fee, but the cost will be substantially less than using a debt relief company.  An excellent resource for locating a local credit counseling service is the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, at www.nfcc.org.
  • If a company offers a “one size fits all” solution, what they are really offering is a “no size fits anyone” problem.  Legitimate credit counseling services tailor a consolidation plan to each consumer’s individual needs.
  • Do not be afraid to ask questions.  Demand that the company disclose set-up and maintenance fees, and that these fees be set in writing.  According to the Consumer Federation of America, consumers should not pay more than $50 for the set-up fee and $25 for monthly maintenance of the account.
  • Do not rely on the company’s website.  Conduct your own searches of the company – the Better Business Bureau and state consumer protection agencies are excellent resources.
For more information on debt relief scams, see the Federal Trade Commission’s website.  Additional information on legitimate debt relief services can be found on the Consumer Federation of America’s website (PDF).
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Wednesday, June 20, 2012
The following post appears courtesy of the Consumer Protection Branch of the Civil Division The dietary supplement industry has grown exponentially in recent decades, expanding from a niche health market into a major industry offering purported solutions for all types of ailments.  In 1994, Congress struck a balance between the dietary supplement industry and the public interest by enacting a law that generally treated dietary supplements as food rather than medicine. That means, for example, dietary supplements are generally not required to go through pre-market approval like pharmaceuticals.    In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognized that stronger regulations for the manufacturing of dietary supplements were needed.  Important new requirements have been introduced, in an effort to ensure that dietary supplements contain what they claim to contain. In the last few years, the Consumer Protection Branch of the Civil Division, the FDA, and the Federal Trade Commission have collaborated in a number of actions designed to protect consumers.   When its inspections reveal serious deficiencies in a dietary supplement firm’s labeling, manufacturing, or advertising, the FDA typically sends the firm a warning letter giving the firm a certain amount of time to rectify the violations, and may work with the firm to recall products with potential risks.  You can find out about these actions and protect yourself by signing up for FDA recall alerts and by checking the FDA and FTC websites for warning letters issued to firms whose dietary supplements you may have purchased.  If the firm does not remedy the violations, the matter may be referred to the Justice Department for civil or criminal prosecution.  In one recent case, the Consumer Protection Branch filed a civil suit against a Paterson, NJ-based supplement maker that had a serious rodent infestation, manufacturing problems that resulted in allergen cross-contamination, and various labeling errors.  One of the firm’s products—which had been labeled to be dairy-free but in fact contained milk—even caused a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction in a consumer with a severe milk allergy.  Flouting a court-ordered shut down, the manufacturers simply opened up shop in a new location.  Ultimately, the Justice Department secured a criminal conviction and the firm was ordered to pay $1 million in fines.  Perhaps more significantly, the three principals of the firm were given lengthy prison terms: 40 months for the president and 34 months for the production and quality assurance managers.  Violations in the dietary supplement industry will not be tolerated.  Consumers turn to these products for their health and sense of well-being.  Consumers rely on the labels of dietary supplements to tell them about the effectiveness of the supplements and the allergens in the product.  Consumers should be able to trust that the companies that produce dietary supplements make sure their products are free from harmful impurities and manufactured under sanitary conditions. For more information, visit the FDA website and sign up for recall alerts.
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Monday, May 7, 2012
The following post appears courtesy of the Civil Division's Consumer Protection Branch. The distressed condition of the national housing market, paired with high unemployment, has created a fertile environment for unscrupulous fraudsters seeking to take advantage of desperate homeowners.  Many homeowners who turn to loan modification or foreclosure “rescue” companies for help ultimately find that they have been scammed.  An emerging trend in recent months involves mortgage assistance relief scams.  These scams target homeowners with promises to save them from foreclosure, get them a reverse mortgage, or lower their mortgage payments—in exchange for an advance or monthly fee.  Sadly, many of these homeowners never get the relief they have been promised.  These scams use a variety of simple tactics to identify their financially-distressed victims.  Some scammers locate distressed borrowers from published foreclosure notices or other publicly-available sources; while others rely on mass-marketing techniques such as flyers, radio, television and Internet advertising to lure in distressed borrowers.  Still others deceptively suggest an affiliation with a government agency to quickly earn the trust of unwitting victims.         Because this fraud is so insidious, and preys on individuals who are at their most vulnerable point, the Consumer Protection Branch in the Justice Department’s Civil Division is committed to prosecuting these criminals and bringing justice to their victims.  But individuals are really on the front line in the battle against mortgage fraud.  Information is power, and you can protect yourself from mortgage fraud by keeping the following tips in mind:
  • Be wary of those that contact you through advertising such as flyers, radio/television or the Internet with promises to modify the terms of your mortgage; if their promises seem too good to be true, they usually are.
  • Be suspicious of loan modification services that require signing a contract or paying an up-front or monthly fee.  Advance fees are generally prohibited by law.  Loan counseling and modification services are generally provided free from your lender and/or a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counseling center.  Contact HUD’s toll-free 24 hour hotline at 888-995-HOPE (4673) to immediately speak to an expert advisor in more than 160 languages. 
  • Never transfer title of your property, make mortgage payments to someone other than your lender, or stop making mortgage payments altogether — these are guaranteed ways to put your financial investment at risk.
  • Carefully inspect the names, seals, logos and representations made by mortgage rescue companies.  They may be deliberately designed to deceive borrowers into believing an affiliation with a government agency exists.  The purpose of this is to trick borrowers into believing they are entitled to the benefit of a government program rather than committing to a loan that must be repaid.  A government agency will never require advance fees, or guarantee a specific result. 
  • Some scammers pushing reverse mortgage loans are in fact trying to unload other financial products on borrowers.  Be careful to avoid brokers that want you to obtain a loan in order to buy other products such as long-term care insurance, annuities, or other investments.
And, if you believe you may have been the victim of mortgage fraud, visit www.Stopfraud.gov for more information.
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Thursday, April 26, 2012
The following post appears courtesy of Stuart F. Delery, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. If you are like most people, you probably think intellectual property (IP) is an abstract business or legal concept that does not affect you. But if you are one of the estimated 36 million Americans — and growing — who purchase medication through online pharmacies, IP may be protecting you from unknowingly gambling with your own health. Online pharmacies are prolific. And appealing. For the many Americans who do not have health insurance or cannot afford certain medications, the Web seems to offer a cheaper alternative. Many of these sites are designed to appear legitimate, often featuring a picture of smiling pharmacist in a white lab coat or claiming to be based in Canada. But these sites often are not what they seem. Neither are the drugs they sell. The World Health Organization estimates that more than half of drugs sold online are counterfeit. This means that these drugs are designed and packaged to look exactly like medicine you know and trust — medicine which required years of research and development, went through a stringent approval process, and was manufactured by trained professionals. These counterfeit drugs lack those safeguards; they aren’t made in quality-controlled laboratories, but in hidden rooms with unsanitary conditions. In order to replicate the look of legitimate drugs, they bear shockingly sophisticated labels and packaging, down to the serial numbers on blister packs and holograms. If that seems like a lot of trouble to go through, one need only look at the revenue for counterfeit pharmaceuticals worldwide to understand why — fake drugs raked in an estimated $75 billion last year. All of us are looking for quality medicines at a better price. But these counterfeit pharmaceutical websites are run by criminals who trade on your trust of approved medicines and the quality assurances you have come to expect from them. Take the case of Hazim Gaber, who ran an online pharmacy selling a highly-sought after cancer drug, DCA. Or so his customers thought. The pills these cancer patients received in the mail contained nothing more than starch, dextrin and lactose. For good measure, each shipment included a fraudulent certificate of analysis from a fictitious laboratory. The medicine Gaber sold was useless. But, more often, counterfeit medications are actually harmful. More typical of a hardware store than a pharmacy, these products often include chemicals you might not even want in your house, let alone your body — toxins like rat poison, highway paint, floor wax, and boric acid. As just one example, customers have received ‘Xanax’ pills containing a substance used to manufacture sheetrock. IP protections are a critical tool in protecting Americans from this threat. IP is not simply about downloading music or billion dollar fights over microchips. It is about making sure what you buy is actually what it claims to be. That is why the Department of Justice is working hard to fight these criminal counterfeiters. Established by Attorney General Holder, our department-wide IP Task Force is working to combat the growing number of IP crimes, strengthening IP protections through heightened civil and criminal enforcement, greater coordination with state and local law enforcement and, because we know we cannot fight this within our borders alone, increased focus on international enforcement efforts. As part of that initiative, within the Civil Division, we have formed a team of attorneys dedicated to handling counterfeit pharmaceutical cases, particularly those trafficked over the Internet. Working with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and many other partners, we are succeeding in safeguarding IP rights and protecting consumers’ safety. And, thanks to the Department’s efforts, criminals like Gaber are off the Internet and behind bars. Most importantly, we are working to educate consumers about how they can protect themselves. A recent study showed that fewer than 11% of online pharmacy sites ask for a prescription. Before you purchase any medicines online, make sure the site (1) requires a prescription; (2) provides its name and address; and (3) has a licensed pharmacist you can actually speak to. And if you suspect an online pharmacy is selling counterfeit medicine, report it here. With your help, we can keep patients safe, protect legitimate businesses, and keep products like rat poison and highway paint where they belong – far away from our medicine cabinets. You can learn more about this Administration’s efforts to inform the public about intellectual property crime at www.ncpc.org/getreal.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2012
The following post appears courtesy of Stuart Delery, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. Gloria* was thrilled to get the call telling her she had won $5 million in a Jamaican lottery. In her 70s and living alone, Gloria had never been to Jamaica. But she wasn’t about to turn down a windfall. All Gloria had to do to collect her enormous winnings was pay the taxes and insurance—up front. A week later, the lottery called again. Gloria’s prize had increased because other prizes had gone unclaimed. Just a few more taxes to be paid and she would be financially secure for life. But, there was no lottery and there would be no winnings. Gloria was the victim of scam, a growing number of which target seniors. All told, Gloria lost almost $30,000—her entire nest egg. At the Civil Division we are working hard to strengthen our role in protecting consumers from predators like these. With the help of our law enforcement partners at home and abroad, we are bringing criminal cases against lottery scams—seeking not just convictions but also restitution for victims. And we are giving priority to fighting criminals targeting vulnerable populations. But we’re not stopping there. We are also working with consumer advocacy groups to identify trends in fraud and support outreach and education to keep people from becoming victims in the first place. Economic crimes can destroy lives just as quickly as violent ones. During this year’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, I hope that by sharing stories like Gloria’s we can prevent others from falling victim to similar scams. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 92 percent of lottery and sweepstakes fraud victims stay silent out of embarrassment or shame. We are encouraging victims to come forward and report these crimes at FTCcomplaintassistant.gov, because when they do, law enforcement can make the biggest difference. *The names and details of victims have been altered to protect their privacy.
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012
The following post appears courtesy of Richard Goldberg, Assistant Director of the Civil Division's Consumer Protection Branch. Did you know that your telephone bills may contain charges for products or services other than telephone service, much like charges on a credit card?  Those who carry out these types of fraud have found ways to insinuate themselves onto the telephone billing system, and arrange for false charges to appear on telephone bills.  As a result, you could be paying for goods or services you never ordered or received.  “Cramming” is the practice of placing unauthorized, misleading or deceptive charges on a telephone bill.  The perpetrators tend to keep crammed charges small, to increase the likelihood that you will pay your bill without noticing the false charges.  They do this on both consumer and business telephone bills, on landline and wireless bills.  The Consumer Protection Branch in the Justice Department’s Civil Division is working hard to prosecute these criminals.  But individuals are really the front line in the battle against cramming and in the best position to notice these false charges.  Crammed charges may appear on any page of a telephone bill, so you should carefully review your bill on a monthly basis.  If you see unfamiliar or suspicious charges on your telephone bill, you should:
  1.  Contact your local telephone company, tell the telephone company of the cramming, and instruct the company to remove the false charge and give a credit for false charges on any previous bills, and
  2. Submit a complaint summarizing the false charges to the Federal Trade Commission
Many telephone companies will, upon request, exclude third-party billing from a customer's telephone bill.  Doing so may prevent crammed charges from appearing on telephone bills in the future.  Visit FCC.gov for more information about cramming and how to protect yourself. 
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011
The following post appears courtesy of Tony West, the Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Civil Division.  Some crimes do not leave visible bruises or scars.  But they are no less painful.  I think about that every day when I hear how many hard-working, honest people have become victims of those who see the financial crisis as an opportunity to exploit hardship for profit. One of those people was “Ana,” a single mother living in Florida who needed to work from home to care for her ailing daughter.  She thought she had finally found a solution when she learned of an opportunity to own an ATM in a profitable, high-traffic location.  All that was required was an upfront investment fee.  Hopeful, Ana signed on and invested her life savings.  But, the company never fulfilled its promise.  It was only after Ana had lost everything and was left saddled with debt that she discovered that the salespeople provided phony references and lied about the profits that would be earned with their ATMs.  As it ruined the lives of folks like Ana, this company raked in over $4 million in profits. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories like this one all over the country.  That is why, as head of the Civil Division of the Department of Justice, I have worked hard to enhance our role in protecting consumers from these predators.  Our hard work has paid off: a nationwide effort by the Department’s Office of Consumer Protection Litigation, the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general has resulted in the conviction of over 150 defendants – including the two individuals behind the ATM scam – as well as court orders of over $100 million in criminal restitution for victims like Ana. Still, prosecution of these criminals only gets us so far.  We are also working to educate consumers about business opportunity fraud and how they can avoid it.  Under federal law, a business opportunity seller is required to provide a list of former purchasers to prospective buyers – enabling them to talk to someone who invested previously and learn how the business really works.  So, if a seller offers a few named references instead of the full list, be wary.  In addition, we encourage consumers to ask for earnings’ claims in writing and ask the FTC or their state government whether there are unresolved complaints involving the business.  But we will never be able to truly fight these financial crimes if victims do not come forward and tell their stories. And many victims still do not.  Consumers often feel responsible for their own fate and opt to suffer alone.  That is particularly tragic considering that there are hundreds of thousands of victims like them – who pursued opportunities not to get rich quick, but just to make a living. This was not a violent crime, but her family suffered devastating losses just the same.  And, like many victims, Ana felt shame and embarrassment that she may have invited the crime somehow.  But, unlike many victims of financial fraud, she found the strength to come forward, tell her story, and seek help. And by so doing, she prevented someone else from becoming a victim, too. So, if you have been a victim, I hope you will take the first step.  Report the fraud and learn about resources for victims at www.StopFraud.gov, the website for the federal government’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.  File a complaint with the FTC at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or at 1-877-FTC-HELP.  Then contact your state attorney general to learn your rights and get help.  Because justice begins with you.
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