While reading the classified ads of The Washington Post last fall, Suzanne Paton saw an offer she couldn't refuse: a toll-free telephone number and a job.
All the Howard County woman needed to do was pay $96 and take a test for 10 job referrals, courtesy of a Washington-based firm called SMG.
Paton got four referrals, but none of the jobs existed, according to federal law enforcement officials. She tried to get her money back, but couldn't.
Paton called the FBI in December. And on Tuesday this week, federal agents seized dozens of boxes of records and equipment from the offices of SMG and several related businesses in the 2000 block of M Street NW, shutting down an allegedly fraudulent operation that law enforcement officials said preyed upon job seekers.
The search is part of an ongoing federal investigation into allegations that SMG and its related companies have operated fraudulent businesses, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
SMG, also known as Strategic Management Group, placed advertisements in newspapers across the nation offering a toll-free telephone number and a promise of jobs, according to an affidavit in support of the search warrant that was filed in U.S. District Court.
Callers to the toll-free number would hear a sales pitch that ended with a request for their credit card number and a promise that an aptitude test was on the way, according to the affidavit and an interview with a former SMG employee.
The customers' accounts were charged a fee that ranged from $96 to $296 and the tests were sent but never graded, the court papers said. Instead, they were sent to an SMG office in Florida, where federal and local law enforcement officers also executed a search warrant this week.
"In an economy where more people are looking for employment, this type of offer would be an environment that would generate a lot of activity," U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens said. "They did have a number of phones hooked up and a number of employees manning the phones."
Stephens said that SMG also allegedly operated a business that advertised the availability of venture capital, promising for a fee to deliver at least five potential sources of funds. Customers allegedly received nothing in return for the fee, Stephens said.
FBI agents seized telephones along with records when they raided the SMG offices Tuesday morning. A half-dozen telephone numbers for SMG or related businesses are out of order. No one returned calls after messages were left at the only working number listed in court documents.
Jaye Lawhorn, who was taking calls as an SMG customer service representative when the FBI closed down the business, said an increasing number of customers were calling to complain that they had received no job referrals and in some cases no tests.
One one occasion, Lawhorn said, employees found a group of ungraded tests and complained to managers, who said that the tests had to be sent to the Florida office.
"The longer I stayed there, the more complaints I heard along with new callers," said Lawhorn, who began work at SMG in January. "We thought something was wrong. We knew it when the FBI came in and said, 'Everybody hang up the phones.' "