(KTVI) - A retired businessman from Villa Ridge, Mo., may have lost more than $10,000 in a widespread investment and credit card processing scheme based in Arizona, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns.
“I was in business for 25 years; I should know a scam when I see it,” said the 64-year-old retiree from High Ridge, Mo. He said a telemarketer promised him returns on his investment of between $1,000 and $10,000 per month, but “I haven’t gotten a dime.”
Similar programs appear to have duped consumers across the nation. Some invested hundreds or thousands of dollars in plans marketed as ways to generate monthly income.
A string of Phoenix-area businesses tied to Lance R. Himes, Leary Darling and Anna Hobbs is believed to be responsible. Newspaper stories and an Arizona Department of Corrections website shows Darling served prison time in Arizona for killing a 53-year-old Phoenix woman and her son. The site shows Himes served time for kidnapping.
Last week, Darling, Himes and a dozen of their companies agreed to pay full refunds to more than 100 consumers in Oregon as part of an agreement with the Oregon Department of Justice. The men also have agreed to permanently stop doing business in that state and to pay the state $400,000. The Oregon Department of Justice alleged multiple violations of Oregon’s Unfair Trade Practices Act. Those violations include knowingly allowing a customer to enter into a transaction from which he or she would derive no benefit and failing to deliver goods as promised.
Companies involved in the scheme and identified by the BBB and Oregon authorities include JMC Services, Global Production Group, Aflac Assist (no connection to the insurance provider), Alac Assist, US Doc Assist, Money Now Funding, First Business, Divine Clientele, Legal Doxs, Assisting US Jobs, Management A.A., Transactions A. A., US Job Assistance, US Job Assist, US Biz Assist, Direct Merchant Network and Merchant Care. All are based in Arizona.
Several of the businesses have been the subject of dozens of BBB complaints from consumers who claimed they made investments but received little or nothing in return.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said the scheme is taking money from people who can ill afford to lose it. “Many of the victims are seniors who have been persuaded to invest their savings on the promise of steady monthly income,” she said. “Unfortunately, it appears that these promises are coming up empty.”
The retiree from Villa Ridge told the BBB said that a telemarketer representing US Business Assistance first contacted him after he inquired about work-at-home programs on the Internet several months ago. Soon after, a salesman claiming to represent JMC Services outlined a plan to sell him a list of several hundred business leads containing the names of firms that had expressed an interest in changing their credit card processing companies. The retiree said the salesman told him that he would get 1 to 2 percent of each new credit card sale processed if the businesses agreed to change plans.
The retiree said the salesman told him other companies would pursue the leads and lock down the sales. They told him he would not have to do anything. The retiree also said salesmen offered him so-called “guaranteed merchant accounts” that had already been sold and that would provide additional sources of income.
He said he paid several thousand dollars more for an Internet marketing program that was supposed to generate even more credit card leads.
“They knew what they were doing,” he said of the salesmen. “They had an answer for everything.”
He said he became increasingly suspicious after experiencing numerous delays in obtaining promised materials. Company employees also became evasive in answering questions. He said the companies cut off communications after he asked one of the salesmen for business references. The retiree said he has asked his credit card company to refund his money, but the matter is still pending.
A retiree in Mayville, Wis., filed a BBB complaint against US Job Assistance in Phoenix earlier this year after investing $10,000 in an almost identical program in October 2012. Soon after filing the complaint last month, she received a $465 check. “I never got anything more and I don’t expect to,” she said. She said she is so embarrassed that she has been unable to tell her family what happened.
A 95-year-old Michigan man said he invested about $18,000 in a program connected to several of the Arizona companies. He told the BBB he has received payments of about $2,000 in recent months.
The Michigan man said he was notified earlier this year by the Phoenix area BBB and law enforcement officials that his name was listed on State of Arizona registration papers for three Arizona companies tied to the scheme. He said he contacted company representatives who offered to pay all of his expenses to fly him to Phoenix in March.
He said he met with Himes and Darling who tried to convince him that the investment program was legitimate. He said that once he looked at the companies’ financial records he told the men he thought their operation was phony. He described the record keeping as “very inadequate.”
He said he also learned that the men had opened a bank account under his name. “My signature was on everything,” he said. He said he has supplied that information to law enforcement.
He said that Himes and Darling agreed to a demand to provide him with a document showing that he had no ownership or management responsibilities for any of the companies.
The BBB has left messages with representatives of several of the Phoenix companies, but has received no responses.
The BBB offers the following advice to anyone contacted by businesses offering investment or work-at-home opportunities:
- Research investment or work-at-home offers thoroughly before committing any money. Work-at-home offers that require advance payments are seldom legitimate.
- Ask for references and contact them before making any investment.
- Discuss the offer with a trusted friend, family member or financial advisor before making a commitment. You can also contact your local BBB, attorney general’s office or the Federal Trade Commission to determine whether the offer is a recognized scam.
- Pay with a credit card in the event you have to challenge the payment later. Find out if there is a deadline for challenging a charge.
- Get a BBB Business Review by going to www.bbb.org or by calling 314-645-3300.