Debt Settlement Executives / Sales Reps Face Up to 20 Years in Jail

A friend sent in this announcement from the Department of Justice. Wow!

A grand jury in Santa Ana, California, indicted three individuals for allegedly operating fraudulent debt relief services companies that offered to settle credit card debts but instead took victims’ payments as undisclosed up-front fees, the Justice Department and U.S. Postal Inspection Service announced.

Jeremy Nelson, 29, Elias Ponce, 27, and John Vartanian, 55, all of Orange County, California, were charged with conspiracy, mail fraud, and wire fraud in connection with their roles at companies known as Nelson Gamble & Associates and Jackson Hunter Morris & Knight LLP. According to the indictment, the defendants portrayed the debt relief companies as law firms and attorney-based companies that would negotiate favorable settlements with creditors. Clients made monthly payments expecting the money to go toward settlements. But the defendants instead took at least 15 percent of the total debt as company fees, with the first six months of payments going almost entirely towards undisclosed up-front fees.

If convicted, the defendants face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count of conspiracy, mail fraud, and wire fraud, or an alternate fine of twice the loss or twice the gain, whichever is greater, along with mandatory restitution.

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“Potential clients who responded to the advertisements spoke to sales representatives, including, at times, defendant VARTANIAN. VARTANIAN and other sales representatives told potential clients that Nelson Gamble and Jackson Hunter would negotiate debt settlements with clients’ creditors. VARTANIAN and other sales representatives said clients would make monthly payments to escrow accounts that would be used to pay the settlements. At times during the conspiracy, sales representatives, including VARTANIAN, led prospective clients to believe that Nelson Gamble and Jackson Hunter were law firms and worked with attorneys, and that the only up-front fee for the companies’ services was an “enrollment fee” of approximately $200. Unbeknownst to these clients, the companies did not employ attorneys and charged fees equal to at least 15 percent of the debt clients enrolled in the program, with a large portion of those fees paid up-front. For example, a client with $10,000 in debt would be charged at least $1,500 in “setup” fees, along with additional monthly fees. At times, customers who specifically asked were told about a 15 percent fee, but the defendants and their co-conspirators did not disclose that in most cases the first six monthly payments would go almost entirely toward up-front fees.” – Source

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“Americans facing credit card debts are sometimes desperate to improve their financial situations,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda for the Civil Division. “The Civil Division will vigorously pursue those who take advantage of vulnerable consumers trying to dig themselves out of debt.”

“Lying to victims to get their money is not only wrong, it is criminal,” said Acting Inspector in Charge Troy Raper of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. “Postal Inspectors aggressively investigate any operations that use the U.S. mail to perpetrate frauds on the American public.”

According to the Indictment, the scheme ran from February 2010 to September 2012. The Indictment alleges that Jeremy Nelson changed the name of the company from Nelson Gamble to Jackson Hunter after a series of complaints and refund requests. Nelson allegedly directed his co-conspirators and employees to tell victims that Nelson Gamble had gone bankrupt, and that Jackson Hunter was an unrelated company that had purchased the right to service some of Nelson Gamble’s files. The defendants and others allegedly blamed past problems on Nelson Gamble and assured victims that Jackson Hunter was a more experienced and better-run company. Some victims who previously demanded refunds accepted the explanation that Nelson Gamble was bankrupt and did not pursue complaints against Jackson Hunter.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Branda commended the Postal Inspection Service team assigned to the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch for their investigative efforts and thanked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California for their contributions to the case. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Dan Baeza and Alan Phelps with the Consumer Protection Branch.

The charges in the indictment are only allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. – Source

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