A Miami woman charged with running an operation that threatened and defrauded Spanish-speaking consumers was sentenced today in federal district court in Miami, the Department of Justice and U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) announced.
Maria Luzula, 52, was sentenced to serve 165 months in federal prison to be followed by three years of supervised release for her operation of Angeluz Florida Corporation and call centers in Peru that lied to and threatened Spanish-speaking victims into paying fraudulent settlements for nonexistent debts. In addition to her prison sentence, Luzula was ordered to forfeit assets, including her home.
In October, Luzula pleaded guilty to all 27 counts against her midway through trial before U.S. District Court Judge Patricia A. Seitz. The charges against her included conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and attempted extortion. Luzula’s son, Juan Alejandro Rodriguez Cuya, 35, was convicted by a jury after less than two hours of deliberation following a two-week trial and will be sentenced on Jan. 22, 2015.
“The defendants targeted and preyed upon the Spanish-speaking community – and the harm that their fraud caused on individual victims is heart-wrenching,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Justice Department will be particularly vigilant towards schemes that target specific populations, and we will track down fraudulent actors whether they commit their offenses from the United States or abroad, and whether they commit them in English or another language.”
According to evidence presented at trial, the defendants’ employees in Peru used Internet-based telephone calls to threaten Spanish-speaking victims in the United States. The Peruvian callers falsely accused the victims of having failed to accept delivery of certain products and claimed that the victims owed thousands of dollars in fines and that lawsuits would be brought against them. In reality, the victims had never ordered these products and nothing had been delivered.
Additional evidence at trial established that the call center employees claimed that the consumers could resolve the fines if they immediately paid a “settlement fee.” Consumers who contested these settlement fees were told that failure to pay could lead to arrest, deportation or seizure of property. Thousands of victims succumbed to these threats and paid fees that they did not owe.
Victims who testified at trial spoke of how anxious the calls made them. The victims were so afraid of the threats that they paid fees they simply could not afford. At sentencing, victims told the judge that they have lost trust in people and that they still become nervous every time the phone rings.
“Consumer fraud that targets a specific population is shameful,” said U.S. Attorney Wilfredo A. Ferrer for the Southern District of Florida. “In this case, the defendants targeted Spanish-speaking consumers and falsely threatened them with arrest, deportation, forfeiture of property or harm to their credit scores when the consumers refused to settle claims for products that were not delivered or ordered. Such tactics are intolerable. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed and stands united with the Department of Justice’s Civil Division Consumer Protection Branch to protect our consumers from fraud.”
“The USPIS will continue to aggressively investigate and go after those who defraud citizens of their hard earned money through the use of threats and other abusive tactics,” said Postal Inspector in Charge Ronald Verrochio of the USPIS Miami Division.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Branda commended the USPIS for its investigative efforts and thanked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida for their contributions to the case. The case was prosecuted by Trial Attorney Phil Toomajian and Assistant Director Richard Goldberg of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch.