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TMCNet:  FTC Spearheads Joint Law Enforcement Effort Against Robocalls

[November 08, 2012]

FTC Spearheads Joint Law Enforcement Effort Against Robocalls

Nov 08, 2012 (Close-Up Media via COMTEX) -- The Federal Trade Commission escalated its campaign against illegal, unwanted robocalls announcing that it pulled the plug on five companies based in Arizona and Florida allegedly responsible for millions of illegal pre-recorded calls from "Rachel" and others from "Cardholder Services." In a release, the agency said that, state partners in Arizona, Arkansas and Florida also took legal action against similar companies.

Just two weeks after the FTC held a summit in Washington, DC, to examine the robocall problem, officials said, federal courts granted the agency's request to temporarily halt five robocall operations that allegedly deceived consumers into paying hundreds or thousands of dollars by making phony claims that they could reduce consumers' credit card interest rates in return for an upfront fee.

"At the FTC, Rachel from Cardholder Services is public enemy number one," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "We're cracking down on illegal robocalls by bringing law enforcement actions and pursuing technical solutions to the problem." The FTC added that it gets more than 200,000 complaints each month about telemarketing robocalls, including calls from "Rachel" that pitch consumers with a supposedly easy way to save money by reducing their credit card interest rates. After collecting an up-front fee, however, the FTC advises that the companies do little if anything to fulfill their promises.

At the recent summit, the FTC also issued a challenge to the public offering a $50,000 cash prize for the best technical solution to block illegal robocalls on landlines and mobile phones.

Rachel from Card Services In the robocall cases announced, the FTC alleges that the defendants place automated calls to consumers, typically with a prerecorded message from "Rachel" or someone else from "Cardholder Services." The calls purport to have an "important message" regarding an opportunity to reduce high credit card interest rates. Consumers are urged to "press 1" to connect with a live representative, or "press 2" to discontinue getting such calls. Consumers who press 1 are connected to live telemarketers. Most consumers have no way to screen the calls using Caller ID, as the incoming number allegedly is often "spoofed," or displayed as a false number. In many cases, the name displayed on the Caller ID is so generic, such as "Card Services," that it provides little information about who is calling.

According to the FTC, consumers who reach a live telemarketer are then pitched allegedly deceptive offers to have their credit card interest rates substantially reduced, sometimes to as low as 6.9 or even zero percent. The telemarketers allegedly guarantee that lowering card interest rates will save the consumers thousands of dollars in finance charges in a short period of time and will allow them to pay off the balances more quickly. Some telemarketers allegedly claim that consumers will save at least $2,500 in finance charges and will be able to pay off their balances two to three times faster, without increasing their monthly payments.

In some cases, according to the FTC, the telemarketers claim to be calling from the consumer's credit card company. In other cases, they use "Cardholder Services" to suggest a relationship with a bank or credit card company. If the consumer expresses an interest in the rate reduction offer, the telemarketer sometimes conducts a purported "audit" to determine whether the consumer qualifies. Consumers provide their financial and personal information, and are then put on hold while the "audit" is completed. According to the FTC, the "audit" typically is used only to determine whether consumers have enough credit available on their credit cards to pay the company's fee.

After consumers have been "approved" for the program, according to the FTC, the telemarketer informs them that there is an up-front fee, typically ranging from several hundred dollars to nearly $3,000. To convince them to pay the fee, telemarketers often say that it will be more than offset by the money the consumer will save through the program. In some cases, the FTC alleges that consumers' credit cards were charged even if they did not agree to pay for the service. In other cases, the defendants allegedly do not disclose a fee at all, or claim there will be no fee.

The companies allegedly often claim to have a no-risk guarantee, saying that if they don't provide consumers with the promised rate reductions and finance charge savings, they will refund the fee. However, consumers who later complain to the companies find it difficult, if not impossible, to get their money back.

After consumers pay the up-front fee, the FTC alleges, they typically find that the companies do little or nothing to lower their credit card interest rates. The only thing that some of the companies do, according to the FTC, is to initiate three-way calls with consumers' credit card issuers and orally request a rate reduction, a request that consumers could make on their own and that invariably is denied. In some cases, the companies may also apply in the consumer's name for a new credit card with a low- or zero percent introductory interest rate. But according to the FTC, even if a new card is issued, the consumer is unlikely to see the promised savings, as the credit limits likely are low and the introductory rate often goes up after six or 12 months. Consumers often find that they cannot transfer their balances to these new cards.

The FTC's Law Enforcement Cases The five complaints announced were filed against the following companies and their principals: 1) Treasure Your Success, 2) Ambrosia Web Design, 3) A+ Financial Center 4) The Green Savers, and 5) Key One Solutions. Each complaint alleges, among other things, that the defendants violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting that consumers who buy their services: -will have their credit card interest rates reduced substantially; and -will save thousands of dollars as a result of lowered credit card interest rates.

Four of the five complaints announced also charge that the defendants violated the FTC Act by making other misrepresentations, such as claiming that consumers who buy their services will be able to pay off their debts much faster as a result of lowered credit card interest rates and making false claims about their refund policies.

The complaints also charge the defendants with multiple violations of the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR), for misrepresenting their services, calling numbers on the Do Not Call Registry, and collecting up-front fees. The TSR also specifically prohibits charging or receiving a fee in advance of providing debt relief services and misrepresenting debt relief services.

Finally, the complaints charge that the defendants are responsible for illegal robocalls, in violation of the TSR. Nearly all pre-recorded telemarketing calls have been prohibited since September 1, 2009. In the FTC's experience, companies such as these often do not make these calls themselves but instead hire others to make these calls on their behalf. The FTC alleges in each case that the defendants are legally responsible for making the robocalls.

The Commission votes authorizing the staff to file each complaint were 5-0. In filing the complaints, the FTC seeks to permanently stop the defendants' allegedly illegal conduct. In each of the cases, the court granted the FTC's request for a temporary restraining order, which temporarily halts the operations pending further court proceedings.

((Comments on this story may be sent to newsdesk@closeupmedia.com))

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