FTC Settlements Crack Down on Payment Processing Operation that Enabled ‘Google Money Tree’ Scammers to Charge Consumers $15 Million in Hidden Fees

The Federal Trade Commission is continuing its crackdown on payment processing operations that enable scam artists to charge consumer accounts despite signs of ongoing fraud and unauthorized transactions.  Today, the Commission announced a proposed settlement resolving allegations that a payment processor, Process America Inc., and its owners, Kim Ricketts, Keith Phillips and Craig Rickard, used unfair tactics to open and maintain scores of merchant accounts for Infusion Media Inc., which perpetrated the “Google Money Tree” work-at-home scheme.  Using these merchant accounts, Infusion Media charged more than $15 million in unauthorized charges on consumers’ debit and credit card accounts.

Payment processors and Independent Sales Organizations (ISOs) enable merchants to charge consumers’ credit cards for products and services.  In exchange, payment processors and ISOs get paid for each payment transaction the merchant processes.

In June 2009, the FTC charged the Infusion Media defendants  with falsely claiming that consumers could earn $100,000 in six months, misrepresenting an affiliation with Google, and tricking consumers into signing up for automatic monthly charges that would continue until the consumer took affirmative steps to cancel.

The complaint against Process America alleges that the defendants knew or should have known that they were processing charges that consumers had not authorized.  Evidence that consumers were being charged without their permission included plainly deceptive statements on merchant websites, notices that the merchant should be placed in Visa and MasterCard chargeback monitoring programs, and chronically excessive chargeback rates – the percentage of charges that are challenged by consumers and result in the charges being reversed.   From 2008 through 2009, the defendants opened and maintained 131 merchant accounts through which the perpetrators processed more than $15 million in unauthorized charges on consumer debit and credit card accounts.

To keep Infusion Media’s merchant accounts open, the defendants allegedly engaged in tactics that were designed to evade fraud monitoring programs implemented by Visa and MasterCard.  These tactics included submitting merchant applications containing false information and “load balancing” – distributing transaction volume among numerous merchant accounts.  As a result, Infusion Media’s scam operated for nearly a year, and Process America continued to earn fees from its payment processing activity.
To resolve the allegations in the complaint, the individual defendants have agreed to separate permanent injunctions containing prohibitions and restrictions on their future payment processing activities:

  • Rickard is banned from payment processing and acting as an ISO.  He is prohibited from acting as a sales agent for any client engaged in (a) unfair or deceptive business practices; (b) certain categories of high-risk activities, including negative-option marketing (where the seller interprets consumers’ silence or inaction as permission to charge them), money-making opportunities, credit card or identity theft protection, timeshare resale services, buying clubs, medical discount plans; or (c) conduct that has qualified a client for a chargeback monitoring program.
  • Rickard is also prohibited from acting as a sales agent for any client without first screening them for unfair or deceptive business practices.  The order imposes a judgment of more than $184,000 that will be suspended based on his inability to pay.  The full judgment will become due immediately if Rickard is found to have misrepresented his financial condition.
  • Ricketts and Phillips are prohibited from acting as payment processors, ISOs, or sales agents for any client engaged in (a) unfair or deceptive business practices; or (b) certain categories of high-risk activities certain categories of high-risk clients.  They also are barred from acting as a sales agent for any client without screening and monitoring them for unfair or deceptive business practices. 

In addition, Process America’s Chief Restructuring Officer has agreed to recommend and seek authority from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California to enter into the proposed settlement with the FTC.  Under the proposed settlement:

  • Process America is prohibited from payment processing or acting as an ISO or sales agent for any client engaged in negative-option marketing or unfair or deceptive business practices, and from failing to screen, monitor, and promptly investigate clients for such practices.

The orders prohibit all of the defendants from selling or otherwise benefitting from consumers’ personal information, and failing to properly dispose of customer information.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint and approving the proposed consent judgment was 4-0.  The proposed settlement with Process America is subject to the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California’s approval of a Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 9019 Motion for Compromise.  The proposed consent judgments with Process America and the individual defendants are also subject to court approval.

NOTE:  The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest.  Consent judgments have the force of law when approved and signed by the District Court judge.

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 2,000 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. Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

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