FTC Testifies on Efforts to Stop Economic Stimulus Fraud

The Federal Trade Commission today told the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that the agency is working to protect consumers from fraudulent schemes claiming to dispense guaranteed grants from the economic stimulus program, and from other frauds exploiting consumers who are struggling due to the economic downturn.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz testified that the Commission is aggressively pursuing fraudulent marketers who are capitalizing on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 by claiming to offer free government grant money and using other come-ons to bilk money from consumers confronted with job losses, foreclosures, and dwindling retirement accounts. The testimony highlighted the agency’s law enforcement efforts against these and other schemes that prey upon financially distressed consumers, and described its work to educate consumers.

“To con artists, today’s challenging economy presents a golden opportunity — sadly, an opportunity to play on the economic distress of American consumers,” Leibowitz said. The Commission is working with heightened urgency. The FTC and state and federal partners collectively have filed 389 law enforcement actions in FTC-led sweeps targeting fraud during the last six months. For example, in “Operation Short Change,” the FTC, the Department of Justice, and 14 states filed more than 120 law enforcement actions challenging government grant scams, employment and work-at-home scams, advance-fee credit card scams, bogus debt relief services, and get-rich-quick schemes such as buying and selling foreclosed real estate.

The testimony highlighted recent FTC cases involving government grant-related schemes. The Commission charged Grant Connect, LLC, and related entities with misrepresenting their expertise and the availability of grants, and making unauthorized withdrawals from consumers’ bank accounts. Also, the FTC and three states obtained a federal court order halting Grant Writers Institute and its telemarketers, who allegedly charged hundreds of dollars for grant-related services and falsely claimed a 70 percent success rate in securing grant money. The Commission alleged that Web site operators using names like “Grants for You Now” enrolled consumers in a negative-option program with recurring charges of nearly $100 per month. An individual operating as “Cash Grant Institute” allegedly advertised “free grant money” in prerecorded robocalls and operated a fraudulent Web site with images of President Obama and the U.S. Capitol.

The testimony noted several other “Operation Short Change” cases in which the FTC obtained court orders that halted the defendants’ practices and froze their assets. The agency charged Career Hotline and Wagner Borges Ramos, operating as Job Safety USA, with selling bogus job assistance. John Beck/Mentoring of America and Freedom Foreclosure Prevention Services allegedly made false earnings claims in real estate-related scams, and an entity using the name Google Money Tree allegedly made unauthorized debits from consumers’ accounts in a work-at-home scam. The FTC also sued an enterprise that tricked consumers into buying credit cards useful only for buying certain products, and it charged Mutual Consolidated Savings with using robocalls to sell a bogus debt relief program.

In March, having searched the Internet for fraudulent marketing offers, the FTC held a press conference to warn consumers about Web sites promising grant money to start a business, take a vacation, or pay bills. The event alerted consumers throughout the nation and identified www.grants.gov, operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as the official source for information about federal government grants. The Commission also issued a consumer alert stating that the promise of stimulus money in return for a fee or consumers’ financial information is always a scam. At the FTC’s request, major online ad networks agreed to screen out ads touting grants for individual consumers.

The testimony described the FTC’s consumer education efforts, including “Operation Short Change” press coverage that reached more than 35 million Americans. The Commission produced a video featuring a former con artist, who talked about his techniques and how consumers can protect themselves from fraud (YouTube.com/ftcvideos). In connection with a federal-state crackdown on mortgage foreclosure rescue scams, the FTC created mortgage-related resources available at www.ftc.gov/moneymatters, and groups such as NeighborWorks America and the Homeowners Preservation Foundation are distributing FTC materials to homeowners. Next month, the Commission will send a video to thousands of community organizations, HUD-certified housing counselors, and state attorneys general, featuring legitimate counselors helping to save people’s homes from foreclosure. The agency is also alerting publishers and broadcasters to claims that can signal a rip-off, and providing public service announcements for the business opportunity section of newspapers’ classified ads.

The testimony also described the FTC’s research to stay abreast of marketplace developments to ensure its preparedness against fraud, including consumer fraud surveys and a fraud forum held earlier this year to help law enforcement, consumer advocates, and businesses understand how fraudulent marketers operate. In conclusion, the testimony expressed the FTC’s commitment to using its resources to stop fraud and help consumers avoid being victimized.

The Commission vote authorizing the testimony was 4-0.

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 1,700 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s Web site provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.

(Senate Testimony)

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