Two data-brokerage firms illegally sold the financial information of at least 500,000 people who applied for payday loans to a third party that stole millions from them, the Federal Trade Commission alleged in a case announced Wednesday.
“Companies that collect people’s sensitive information and give it to scammers can expect to hear from the FTC," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
In a complaint filed last Friday, the government said that Sequoia One LLC and Gen X Marketing Group collected sensitive financial data about people seeking payday loans. They purchased some of the data from other outlets and obtained the rest through a variety of Web sites the companies owned that claimed to help people obtain payday loans. The firms then sold the data to others, including Ideal Financial Solutions, according to the FTC.
The FTC said Sequoia One and Gen X Marketing Group, which both primarily operated out of Florida, supplied Ideal Financial with account information from at least 500,000 people who applied for payday loans, leading to more than $7 million being taken from those consumers’ bank accounts without their consent.
The consumers learned about the charges only “after Ideal Financial had debited their bank accounts,” the complaint said. Ideal Financial is not part of this lawsuit, but it was the subject of a separate FTC suit filed in January 2013 that claimed the company targeted financially vulnerable consumers with unauthorized charges. That case is still in litigation, and Ideal Financial, which was based in Las Vegas, is no longer operating because of a government restraining order.
The two data-brokerage firms are named as defendants in the complaint along with four people who managed or owned them — Jason Kotzker, Theresa Bartholomew, John Bartholomew Jr. and Paul McDonnell. Sequoia One and Gen X Marketing Group have since been dissolved.
The agency said the defendants knew Ideal Financial was engaging in dubious business practices: In 2011, an Ideal Financial executive told Kotzker that the company was hitting consumers with a “blind bump,” charging them a service fee hidden in a Web site’s terms and conditions, according to the complaint.
The Sequoia One and Gen X Marketing Group executives also tried to help Ideal Financial cover up its shady billing practices, the government alleged, helping them take a few cents in and out of consumers’ accounts so Ideal would appear legitimate and larger transactions would be less likely to trigger fraud alerts. And in 2012, the FTC said, the data brokers hid their payday-lending sites behind a third-party company, Pinnacle Processing, to reduce scrutiny.
The Bartholomews and McDonnell agreed to settle with the FTC, according to an agency statement. As part of their agreements, they will be prohibited from selling or benefiting from customer information in the future.
The Bartholomews agreed to settle with the FTC for $7.1 million but that will be suspended after they pay $15,000. McDonnell agreed to a $3.7 million settlement, but that is suspended because of his inability to pay. Although both judgments could be due immediately if the defendants misrepresented their financial status, it seems unlikely that consumers will be getting their money back through this case.
Kotzker is not settling, according to the FTC. He declined to comment on the case.
The Post could not immediately reach Theresa Bartholomew, John Bartholomew or McDonnell for comment.
This is the second time in the past year that the FTC has gone after a data broker associated with Ideal Financial. Last December, the agency filed a complaint against LeapLab, accusing the company of selling consumers’ personal data to the company.
Cases like these should be a cautionary tale, Rich said. “If you can buy information so freely, sensitive information, and use it for fraud, it shows that the availability of detailed consumer data can harm them in very tangible ways,” she said.