Two individuals pleaded guilty today for their roles at 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 (USPIS) announced.
Athena Maldonado, 30, and Christopher Harati, 31, both of Orange County, California, pleaded guilty to a one-count information alleging conspiracy in connection with debt relief companies known as Nelson Gamble & Associates (Nelson Gamble) and Jackson Hunter Morris & Knight LLP (Jackson Hunter). According to the information filed in the case, the defendants and their co-conspirators 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. The companies instead took an amount equal to at least 15 percent of clients’ total debt as company fees, with the first six months of payments going almost entirely toward undisclosed up-front fees.
“Debt relief service scams prey on vulnerable consumers trying to climb out of tough financial situations,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Justice Department will aggressively pursue the criminals who operate these schemes.”
Maldonado admitted that she acted as the “legal department” for both companies, and used multiple aliases when responding to complaints submitted by state attorney general offices, the Better Business Bureau and private attorneys. Maldonado admitted that, after Nelson Gamble changed its name to Jackson Hunter, she responded to consumer complaints by falsely stating, among other things, that the two companies were not related and that Jackson Hunter could not refund money paid to Nelson Gamble.
Harati admitted that he worked as a client relations manager for the companies and handled complaint calls from clients. He admitted he told customers that Nelson Gamble and Jackson Hunter were separate companies, falsely stated that Jackson Hunter was a nationwide law firm with years of experience and made other misrepresentations designed to convince customers to stay with the company.
The defendants each face a statutory maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, or an alternate fine of twice the loss or twice the gain, whichever is greater, along with mandatory restitution. Their sentencing dates have not been set.
On Dec. 3, 2014, a grand jury in Santa Ana, California, returned a 22-count indictment charging Jeremy Nelson, Elias Ponce and John Vartanian, all of Orange County, for mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in the same fraudulent scheme. The trial in that case is scheduled to begin on Feb. 16, 2016, in Los Angeles.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought a civil case against Nelson Gamble, Jackson Hunter and other defendants in September 2012, alleging that the defendants falsely claimed they would reduce consumers’ unsecured debt by 50 percent or more, made unauthorized charges to their bank accounts and called phone numbers listed on the National Do Not Call Registry. For more information about debt relief firms, the FTC encourages consumers to review this page on their website.
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mizer commended the USPIS team assigned to the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch for their investigative efforts, and thanked the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Central District of California for their contributions to the case. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Alan Phelps of the Consumer Protection Branch.