Crimes of Persuasion

Schemes, scams, frauds.

Strategia / Suntasia Marketing, FTN Promotions, Florida Travel Network, Travel Promotion Scam 

A Huge Telemarketing Fraud Operation Gets Some Press

07/06 - SEATTLE - When a telemarketer calls you up and mentions Costco, that gets your attention. But in this case, Costco says watch out.

This tip comes from Rachel Randall of Shelton who says she got a call from a Suntasia Marketing. The caller told her she's get $100 in free gas and $400 in airfare if she would try out some products from Costco.

Rachel says what really freaked her out is the caller already had her bank account information - both her account number and the routing number of her bank.

Coscto Vice President of Membership Paul Latham wants you to know that Costco is not not involved in any telemarketing promotion.

"We aren't doing any kind of promotion with a telemarketer," Latham said. "We do not allow our membership base to go to anyone."

Suntasia Marketing's web site says it's a full service marketing company. But telemarketing seems to be the primary focus. Suntasia Marketing is actually part of another company called FTN Promotions, based in Saint Petersburg Florida.

FTN stands for Florida Travel Network and according the Better Business Bureau, Florida Travel Network operates under more than half a dozen names, including, Suntasia Marketing, Florida Travel Network, Confirmation Center, Sea Escape, Platinum Plus Travel, Classic Enterprise and Majestic Promotions.

It's travel promoter, but that's about all I could get when I called Suntasia to find out how they got Rachel's account information.

The customer service rep told me Rachel must have done business with one of Suntasia's affiliates.

A young woman who identified herself as "Miss Reed" told me the company offers different promotions and calls customers who've done business with their affiliates. She declined to say who those affiliates area.

Rachel says she was told the company buys or shares lists with other companies but no one would tell her the names of the companies that might have shared her information.

I tried to get a supervisor or owner, but was told there was no one else I could talk to.

From talking with the Florida State Attorney General however, it would appear Rachel is not alone in her concerns.

FTN Promotions, Inc. is the subject of an active investigation by Florida State, based on dozens of complaints about unfair and deceptive practices and unauthorized debiting of consumer bank and credit accounts.

Further background investigation turned up government action in multiple states dating back to 1997, including settlements in 2000 with the states of Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Washington,DC, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The settlements involved misleading and deceptive practices in the sale of vacation packages. At that time, Florida Travel Network agreed to modify its marketing but did not admit any wrongdoing.

I made several attempts to call both Suntasia and FTN Promotions, but either got no answer or the lines were disconnected.

If you get an unsolicited call from Suntasia or any company you've never dealt with who already has your account numbers or other private information, get as much information from the caller as you can and report it to the Washington State Attorney General's office or the AG for your state.

Then, notify your bank and let them know your account has been compromised.

One Year Later The Authorities Finally Act

07/07 - LARGO - Gayla Scott, a single mother, thought of her 11-year-old son's upcoming birthday celebration when she got a telephone call from a telemarketer offering a four-day vacation package in Orlando.

Because the caller already knew the name of Scott's bank, the bank's routing number, and had called her company cell phone, Scott thought the offer was legitimate.

It wasn't, federal authorities said.

When Scott received information on the getaway in the mail, she thought she had a 10-day grace period to make a final decision on the package. But the telemarketing company started taking hundreds of dollars out of her bank account in two days, she said.

The Fort Myers woman is among more than 5,000 consumers nationwide who have complained about the company, which goes by its current name of Strategia Marketing. It is more commonly known locally by its previous name, Suntasia Marketing, authorities said.

On Wednesday, federal and local authorities swooped down on the company's building at 8751 Ulmerton Road and shut down the business, if only temporarily. More than 700 employees work there.

"This may be the biggest telemarketing fraud I've ever seen," said C. Steven Baker, the director of the Federal Trade Commission's Chicago office, which is spearheading the investigation.

The FTC estimates consumers have been defrauded of tens, and perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars.

Dozens of telemarketers showing up for work Wednesday were left dumbfounded as they were handed notices about the shutdown while Largo police officers, U.S. postal inspectors and FTC investigators entered the building.

"I don't know what to think," telemarketer Timothy Harvey said. "I come here to do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay and we get shut down, so it makes us think maybe we weren't doing such an honest job."

"I am very up forward, with telling people the truth and things like that," said Sherry Wise, another telemarketer. "I was under no impression that any laws were broken, so it's kind of overwhelming."

Company's Assets Frozen

At the request of the FTC, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. on Monday entered a 10-day temporary restraining order that puts a stop to the company's operations, freezes the assets of the six men the FTC says run the company, and appoints a receiver to oversee the corporation as the case begins to wend through court. Among the assets is a yacht, Baker said.

According to the Better Business Bureau, the man who runs the company is Bryon W. Wolf. He, along with his brother, Jeffrey P. Wolf; the two men's father, Alfred H. Wolf; the company's general counsel, Donald L. Booth; and two other men, Roy A. Eliasson and John Louis Smith II, are the six men identified in court papers by the FTC.

None of them faces criminal charges.

The six have used at least 15 company names, in addition to Suntasia, when charging consumers' bank accounts, "an approach designed to prevent the public and law enforcement from realizing the scheme's true scope," according to the FTC's 53-page request for the temporary restraining order.

Ostensibly, Suntasia is marketing buyers' and travel clubs, but because company officials realize most consumers wouldn't pay to belong to them, the company uses a range of deceptive practices to trick consumers into revealing their bank account numbers, the request says.

Free Gifts Come At A Price, FTC Says

That's what Scott said her telemarketer did to her. Often, the telemarketers pretended to be associated with a consumer's bank and purported to be calling to offer free gifts, the FTC's request says. But to obtain the gifts, the consumer was asked to "verify" bank account information the telemarketer pretended to already possess, the document says.

And the so-called free gifts weren't free, said Baker, the FTC regional director. To receive the gift, consumers unwittingly agreed to sign on with one of Suntasia's clubs for a year, with more than $100 a month getting plucked from victims' bank accounts, according to the FTC.

The "gifts" were typically $400 in American airline savings vouchers, which consumers mistakenly thought was an American Airlines voucher, or $100 in gas coupons, or two free nights in a hotel, the FTC says. There are so many conditions, however, that the vouchers and coupons essentially are worthless, the FTC says.

As with Scott, many consumers didn't think the trial period for a particular offer began until they received the information in the mail. At Suntasia, unknown to the consumers, the trial period begins when the telemarketing call is made, so money is withdrawn from a person's account before the consumer expects it to be, FTC officials said.

And it is difficult to get out of one of Suntasia's programs, Baker said. Suntasia sometimes ignores cancellation requests altogether, or refuses to issue refunds until a consumer complains to the police or another entity, according to the federal agency.

Scott said she didn't get back the $293.30 taken out of her account until she complained to the Better Business Bureau.

Tampa Bay Tribune

Vacation Club Membership Scams