FTC hard-pressed to secure refunds for job-scam victims

January 2, 2012

The Federal Trade Commission sent refund checks last month to 75,000 people under a settlement with a Texas firm that allegedly charged them for an online list of work-at-home jobs but then often denied them access and refused to give back the fees.

Under the agreement, the firm, Abili-Staff, faced a judgment of $3.6 million. But the bulk of that amount was suspended because the company’s owners could not pay it, court records show. So in the end, each person got an average payment of only $9.70.

When it comes to recouping losses in alleged scams like this, there’s often little money for the victims. As the unemployment rate has spiked in recent years, the FTC has ramped up efforts to shut down operations that prey on the financially distressed, including the unemployed. But in many cases, the ill-gotten gains have been spent or hidden by the time the government uncovers the fraud and the case winds its way through the courts.

Unlike established companies that run legitimate businesses with a reputation to protect, many of these are small operations run by obscure firms. In many cases, they can’t afford to cover the losses, in part because the scams are expensive to run and the profits are meager, according to experts who track these types of cases.

“This is the real tragedy of taking the last dollar from people who are already down on their luck,” said Amy Mudge, an advertising attorney in the District. “You can’t get blood from a stone. . . . There’s nothing to give back.”

David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said there’s great value in shutting down these companies even if victims can’t get a full refund.

“One way to look at these cases is injuries averted,” he said. “If you start adding up the losses we’ve avoided in the cases we’ve done in the last couple of years, you get to $1 billion pretty quick.”

As part of the settlement that Abili-Staff reached with the FTC, the firm was disbanded. The agency approved the settlement last January.

Adam Cortez, a Texas attorney who represented Abili-Staff and its owners, said his clients did not admit any wrongdoing and maintained that they were running a legitimate operation. But they settled the case, he said, because the FTC “applied a one-size-fits-all regulatory approach” that made it difficult for them to defend themselves.

The FTC has toughened its stance toward first-time offenders, according to Vladeck. In several recent cases, the agency has succeeded in banning alleged fraudsters from engaging in the same line of business again. In the past, the FTC only sought such bans against recidivists.

Since 2008, the FTC has brought at least 20 cases involving alleged job-related and business opportunity scams affecting millions of people, and it has gotten a financial judgment in nearly all of the instances. But that does not guarantee that the victims will get any money back.

On occasion, the FTC can’t locate the people accused of perpetrating the fraud. In 2009, the FTC won a $430,000 court judgment against Warner Ramos Borges, who advertised cleaning and maintenance jobs then allegedly tricked job seekers into paying him $100 a pop for an unnecessary certification number that he said they needed.

But the agency could not find Borges or his assets, and therefore could not recover even a fraction of the millions of dollars that consumers allegedly lost.

Even when the FTC seizes assets, it sometimes does not recover enough to provide a refund of any size to consumers. That’s because it costs a lot to hire liquidators to convert the assets to cash, locate injured consumers and print checks, FTC officials said.

The FTC distributed more than $116 million to consumers in fiscal 2011 and credited nearly $142 million to the Treasury, though most of that money came from fees that the agency collects for merger reviews and other tasks.

An FTC fraud survey suggests that the predictor of who gets scammed has little to do with formal education, but rather with the person’s level of economic instability or vulnerability. Consumers who said they had more debt than they could comfortably handle were more likely to be victims of fraud than those with less debt.

The 2007 survey also found that one in every seven American adults falls victim to a scam.

The number of consumer complaints about work-at-home operations has climbed from 8,200 in 2010 to 9,300 in 2011, as of September.

Teresa Yeast, who lives outside Erie, Pa., fell victim to what the FTC concluded was such a con. After her husband lost his job a few years ago, Yeast responded to a newspaper ad seeking people to assemble angel pins out of ribbon, wire and beads. The Darling Angel Pin Creations ads claimed that people with no experience could earn up to $500 a week.

Yeast said she sent $500 to the company for supplies. When she got them, she learned she would need to send in one completed angel for “quality approval.”

“I thought: ‘No problem,’ ” Yeast said. “I sent it back. Rejected. I sent another and another. Rejected. Rejected.’ ”

After Yeast and other consumers complained to state and federal authorities, the FTC started investigating. The agency said nearly all the pins were rejected regardless of quality and it managed, through the courts, to shut down the firm.

But Yeast hasn’t gotten any of her money back, she said. “I suspect I never will.”

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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