The following post appears courtesy of Tony West, the Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division.
Some crimes do not leave visible bruises or scars. But they are no less painful. I think about that every day when I hear how many hard-working, honest people have become victims of those who see the financial crisis as an opportunity to exploit hardship for profit.
One of those people was “Ana,” a single mother living in Florida who needed to work from home to care for her ailing daughter. She thought she had finally found a solution when she learned of an opportunity to own an ATM in a profitable, high-traffic location.
All that was required was an upfront investment fee.
Hopeful, Ana signed on and invested her life savings. But, the company never fulfilled its promise. It was only after Ana had lost everything and was left saddled with debt that she discovered that the salespeople provided phony references and lied about the profits that would be earned with their ATMs.
As it ruined the lives of folks like Ana, this company raked in over $4 million in profits.
I’ve heard heartbreaking stories like this one all over the country. That is why, as head of the Civil Division of the Department of Justice, I have worked hard to enhance our role in protecting consumers from these predators. Our hard work has paid off: a nationwide effort by the Department’s Office of Consumer Protection Litigation, the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general has resulted in the conviction of over 150 defendants – including the two individuals behind the ATM scam – as well as court orders of over $100 million in criminal restitution for victims like Ana.
Still, prosecution of these criminals only gets us so far. We are also working to educate consumers about business opportunity fraud and how they can avoid it. Under federal law, a business opportunity seller is required to provide a list of former purchasers to prospective buyers – enabling them to talk to someone who invested previously and learn how the business really works. So, if a seller offers a few named references instead of the full list, be wary. In addition, we encourage consumers to ask for earnings’ claims in writing and ask the FTC or their state government whether there are unresolved complaints involving the business.
But we will never be able to truly fight these financial crimes if victims do not come forward and tell their stories.
And many victims still do not. Consumers often feel responsible for their own fate and opt to suffer alone. That is particularly tragic considering that there are hundreds of thousands of victims like them – who pursued opportunities not to get rich quick, but just to make a living.
This was not a violent crime, but her family suffered devastating losses just the same. And, like many victims, Ana felt shame and embarrassment that she may have invited the crime somehow. But, unlike many victims of financial fraud, she found the strength to come forward, tell her story, and seek help.
And by so doing, she prevented someone else from becoming a victim, too.
So, if you have been a victim, I hope you will take the first step. Report the fraud and learn about resources for victims at www.StopFraud.gov, the website for the federal government’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. File a complaint with the FTC at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or at 1-877-FTC-HELP. Then contact your state attorney general to learn your rights and get help. Because justice begins with you.