Australian National Pleads Guilty To Multimillion-Dollar Text-Messaging Consumer Fraud Scheme
Audrey Strauss, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that MICHAEL PEARSE, an Australian national who was extradited to the United States from Australia in January 2021, pled guilty today to conspiracy to commit wire fraud stemming from his participation in a fraudulent scheme to charge hundreds of thousands of mobile phone customers millions of dollars in monthly fees for unsolicited, recurring text messages about topics such as horoscopes, celebrity gossip, and trivia facts, without the customers’ knowledge or consent – a practice to which the conspirators referred as “auto-subscribing.” PEARSE played a key role in the scheme as CEO of a company that created the computer program that was used to enroll victims into the text message services without their knowledge or consent. PEARSE pled guilty before United States District Judge Analisa Torres.
U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said: “As he admitted in court today, Michael Pearse played a vital role in an international consumer fraud conspiracy that swindled hundreds of thousands of mobile phone customers out of more than $50 million. Thanks to IRS Criminal Investigation and the FBI, as well as our international partners, Pearse now awaits sentencing for his crime.”
According to the allegations contained in the Indictment, evidence presented at the trial of co-conspirator Darcy Wedd, court filings, and statements made during plea proceedings:
From in or about 2011 through in or about 2013, PEARSE and his co-conspirators engaged in a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud consumers by placing unauthorized charges for premium text messaging services on consumers’ cellular phone bills. To carry out the scheme, PEARSE and others caused unsolicited and recurring text messages to be sent to mobile phone users containing content such as horoscopes, celebrity gossip, or trivia facts. The victims of the fraud scheme never ordered these services, which were known in the industry as premium text messaging (“PSMS”) services, but were fraudulently “auto-subscribed” and billed for them at a rate of $9.99 per month. The $9.99 charge recurred each month unless and until consumers noticed the charges and took action to unsubscribe. Even then, consumers’ attempts to dispute the charges and obtain refunds were often unsuccessful.
During the relevant period, co-conspirator Lin Miao operated a company called Tatto Inc., a/k/a “Tatto Media” (“Tatto”), which offered PSMS services to mobile phone customers. PEARSE was the CEO of a company called Bullroarer, which was affiliated with Tatto. To enable Tatto to auto-subscribe consumers to unwanted PSMS services, PEARSE and co-defendant Yongchao Liu, a/k/a “Kevin Liu,” who worked as a Java Development Engineer for Bullroarer, agreed to build a computer program that could spoof the required consumer authorizations – i.e., a program that could generate the text message correspondence that one would ordinarily see with genuine PSMS subscriptions. PEARSE and Liu agreed to build the program (the “Auto-Subscription Platform”), which was operational by in or about the middle of 2011. PEARSE, Liu, and Miao then used the Auto-Subscription Platform to fraudulently auto-subscribe hundreds of thousands of mobile phone customers, using phone numbers provided by co-conspirators at Mobile Messenger, a U.S. aggregation company operated by Darcy Wedd that served as a middleman between content providers such as Tatto and mobile phone carriers. Through their successful orchestration of the fraudulent scheme, PEARSE and his co-conspirators generated more than $50 million in fraud proceeds for themselves.
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PEARSE, 52, of Australia, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. As part of his plea agreement, PEARSE agreed to forfeit $10,162,937.96, as well as his interest in three real properties in Australia and other assets, representing proceeds traceable to the fraud that PEARSE personally obtained.
The maximum potential sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only, as the sentence of PEARSE will be determined by the Court.
To date, nine defendants, Liu, Miao, Andrew Bachman, Michael Pajaczkowski, Erdolo Eromo, Jonathan Murad, Francis Assifuah, Jason Lee, and Christopher Goff have pled guilty in connection with their participation in the fraud. Two additional defendants, Darcy Wedd and Fraser Thompson, were convicted in 2017 following jury trials.
Ms. Strauss praised the outstanding investigative work of the Internal Revenue Service, Criminal Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In addition, Ms. Strauss thanked law enforcement partners in Australia, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs, for their support and assistance with the extradition of PEARSE and co-defendant Liu.
This case is being prosecuted by the Office’s Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jilan Kamal and Olga I. Zverovich are in charge of the prosecution.