Justice Department Announces Crackdown on Networks That Steal Money from Consumer Accounts and Use Fraudulent “Microtransactions” to Hide the Activity from Banks

The Justice Department announced today a collection of cases against fraud networks that steal money from consumers and use deceptive tactics to conceal illicit activity from financial institutions, thereby allowing that illicit activity to continue. The cases include two civil actions unsealed in the past week seeking temporary restraining orders and the appointment of receivers to stop defendants from dissipating assets.

The civil cases announced today form part of a larger crackdown by the department’s Consumer Protection Branch designed to halt networks of fraudsters that use misrepresentations or unauthorized charges to steal money from consumers’ financial accounts. Fraudsters and their accomplices often hide these unauthorized charges using so-called “microtransactions” or “microdebits,” which group the unauthorized charges with a large number of low-value, straw transactions to lower the fraudster’s chargeback rate. A chargeback is a transaction that is refused or reversed by an account holder’s bank. Because a high chargeback rate can lead to account scrutiny or closure, using microtransactions to artificially reduce the chargeback rate masks the underlying fraud scheme.

“These cases mark an important step in the department’s efforts to halt schemes that prey upon individuals and small businesses across the United States,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The department is committed to using all of the tools at its disposal to prevent fraudsters from reaching into victims’ bank accounts and stealing their hard-earned savings.”

“The great work by postal inspectors in these investigations uncovered far-reaching fraud schemes, and millions of dollars in loss to victims across the country,” said Inspector in Charge Eric Shen of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Criminal Investigations Group. “The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is committed to protecting American consumers and small businesses from falling victim to these types of fraud schemes.”

United States v. Altitude Processing, Inc., et al.

In a case unsealed by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Dec. 11, the Justice Department alleges that a network of fraudsters, including defendants Farhan Khan of Quebec, Canada, Jeremy Todd Briley of Tallulah, Louisiana, Christopher Foufas of Key Biscayne, Florida, Brandon Hahn of Saint Cloud, Florida, and Melinda Petit-Homme of Margate, Florida, stole millions of dollars from consumers and small businesses by making recurring unauthorized charges against their bank accounts. The fraudsters used sham companies, including Altitude Processing Inc., which does business as Clear Marketing Agency, to cover their tracks and make the unauthorized charges appear legitimate.

The defendants allegedly took elaborate steps to portray the sham companies as legitimate businesses that provided online marketing services, creating bogus websites for the sham companies, fake customer authorizations for the charges and a “customer service” call center to field complaints and offer refunds. In reality, victims of the scheme never signed up for – or received – any services from the fraudsters. The complaint further alleges that some of the defendants used numerous sham microtransactions so that banks would not detect large numbers of chargebacks for unauthorized debits. After the government filed its case, the court entered a temporary restraining order enjoining the defendants from making unauthorized debits from consumers’ bank accounts. The government also successfully petitioned for the appointment of a receiver to stop defendants from dissipating assets obtained through the fraud scheme.

United States v. CB Surety, LLC, et al.

In a case unsealed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California on Dec. 12, the Justice Department alleges that a network of fraudsters, including defendants Thomas Eide of South Lake Tahoe, California, Travis Smith of Dallas, Aric Gastwirth of Las Vegas, Stephen Christopher of Poway, California, and Bryan Bass, a resident of India, through various business entities that they owned and operated, processed payments for clients that made unauthorized charges to consumers’ accounts and engaged in a variety of other illegal activities, including technical support scams.

“This case marks a significant step in halting fraud schemes that reap financial gain by scamming consumers and making misrepresentations to financial institutions,” said U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert for the Eastern District of California. “It also sends a clear signal that we have used, and will continue to use, all means at our disposal to protect citizens from such schemes to defraud.”

According to the allegations in the complaint, the defendants gained access to the banking system by creating sham entities to disguise the true activities of their clients and create the appearance that they were engaged in lawful businesses like selling handbags or electric scooters. The defendants allegedly recruited straw owners for the sham entities and outfitted them with phony addresses, websites and customer service lines. The defendants also used sham microtransactions to reduce the number of chargebacks and evade scrutiny from banks. After the government filed its case, the court entered a temporary restraining order enjoining the defendants from continuing to operate the scheme. The government also successfully petitioned for the appointment of a receiver to stop defendants from dissipating assets obtained through the fraud scheme.

The Consumer Protection Branch’s crackdown on cases involving unauthorized charges and microtransactions also includes several criminal cases recently announced. In a case announced two weeks ago, a California businessman was charged with access device fraud and aggravated identity theft for running thousands of unauthorized charges on the credit cards of his former customers. In another case, 14 defendants were charged in a RICO conspiracy indictment in the Central District of California alleging that defendants and associates debited consumers’ bank accounts without authorization and used shell entities and microtransactions to conceal the activity from banks. A co-conspirator pled guilty to bank fraud conspiracy in Las Vegas and was sentenced to 42 months in prison. In a related civil case, the department secured injunctive relief against and settlements totaling nearly $5 million with various persons, including several who are charged in the criminal indictment.

In other cases charging similar schemes, two individuals were charged in the Northern District of Illinois for allegedly deceiving banks, including through the use of microtransactions, in order to open and maintain bank accounts and to allow for the processing of tens of millions of dollars of checks that were purportedly authorized by consumers, but in fact were not. A Nevada man has also pleaded guilty to partnering with foreign telemarketers to use fraudulent checks to steal money from victims’ bank accounts.

USPIS is conducting the investigations, along with (for some matters) the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Office of Inspector General.

In the Altitude Processing case, the government is represented by Trial Attorneys Carolyn Rice and Meredith Reiter and Assistant Director Rachael Doud of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch and Assistant U.S. Attorney James Weinkle for the Southern District of Florida. In the CB Surety case, the government is represented by Trial Attorneys Andrew Crawford and Francisco Unger and Assistant Director Rachael Doud of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Amin for the Eastern District of California.

For more information about the Consumer Protection Branch and its enforcement efforts, visit www.justice.gov/civil/consumer-protection-branch.

Official news published at https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-announces-crackdown-networks-steal-money-consumer-accounts-and-use

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