TAMPA — Two Pinellas County men swindled people with poor credit out of more than $18 million by deducting money out of their bank accounts for an Internet shopping program the people never wanted, a federal agency says.
The Federal Trade Commission says the two men, Bryon Wolf and Roy Eliasson, are repeat offenders. Seven years ago, they took part in a massive telemarketing scam run by Suntasia Marketing of Largo that defrauded people out of $172 million, one of the FTC’s biggest-ever telemarketing investigations.
The FTC barred them then from engaging in similar practices.
A federal judge’s contempt order from January describes an elaborate scam involving payday loan companies and an Internet shopping club.
According to the federal agency, the system worked like this:
In 2009, Wolf and Eliasson formed a Tierra Verde company called Membership Services LLC that operated an “electronic shopping mall,” the FTC’s order says. The company would ship people products from its catalog automatically, unless customers told them not to send them. The company also kept renewing people into the program and charging them a fee unless a customer told them to stop beforehand.
The company generated its sales leads through a relationship with payday loan companies, the FTC said. People would go to payday loan company websites and apply for a loan. Without their knowledge, the people were redirected to Membership Services and enrolled in its shopping club. That gave Membership Services access to the bank account information the customers had entered while seeking a loan.
Wolf and Eliasson led people to believe their payday loan was approved with phrases such as “Congratulations! You have been approved.” Actually, all Wolf and Eliasson did was give customers credit usable for their Internet shopping mall, the FTC says.
The men charged the customers’ bank accounts an initial membership fee, “almost always without the applicants’ knowledge,” the contempt order says. Then, unless the customers caught it, they continued charging customers a monthly fee. All told, they took more than $18 million from customers’ bank accounts, generating net revenue of $14.75 million.
Many customers didn’t have enough money in their accounts so banks charged them insufficient funds fees of $8.1 million, the FTC said.
A Fort Lauderdale-based attorney for Wolf and Eliasson was not available for comment Friday afternoon, and attempts to reach the two men were unsuccessful. The FTC order says the men argued they had disclosed the terms of the shopping club to customers, but the government claimed the terms were hard to find and most people didn’t read them.
U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. found the men in civil contempt and entered a judgment against them for $14.75 million.
The men’s last run-in with the FTC, the Suntasia Marketing case, involved a scheme in which they ran a similar program that deducted money from people’s bank accounts without their consent. Wolf and Eliasson were ordered at that time to turn over $11 million.