Sunday, July 05, 2015

Pair Cop Guilty Pleas For Roles In Bogus Debt Relief Outfit That Purported To Be Nationwide Law Firm, Scamming Victims Out Of 1st Six Months Of Payments As Undisclosed Upfront Fees; Three Other Co-Conspirators Await Trial On 22-Count Indictment

From the U.S. Department of Justice (Washington, D.C.):
  • Two individuals pleaded guilty [] for their roles at fraudulent debt relief services companies that offered to settle credit card debts but instead took victims’ payments as undisclosed up-front fees, the Justice Department and U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) announced.

    Athena Maldonado, 30, and Christopher Harati, 31, both of Orange County, California, pleaded guilty to a one-count information alleging conspiracy in connection with debt relief companies known as Nelson Gamble & Associates (Nelson Gamble) and Jackson Hunter Morris & Knight LLP (Jackson Hunter).

    According to the information filed in the case, the defendants and their co-conspirators portrayed the debt relief companies as law firms and attorney-based companies that would negotiate favorable settlements with creditors. Clients made monthly payments expecting the money to go toward settlements. The companies instead took an amount equal to at least 15 percent of clients’ total debt as company fees, with the first six months of payments going almost entirely toward undisclosed up-front fees.

    ***

    Maldonado admitted that she acted as the “legal department” for both companies, and used multiple aliases when responding to complaints submitted by state attorney general offices, the Better Business Bureau and private attorneys. Maldonado admitted that, after Nelson Gamble changed its name to Jackson Hunter, she responded to consumer complaints by falsely stating, among other things, that the two companies were not related and that Jackson Hunter could not refund money paid to Nelson Gamble.

    Harati admitted that he worked as a client relations manager for the companies and handled complaint calls from clients. He admitted he told customers that Nelson Gamble and Jackson Hunter were separate companies, falsely stated that Jackson Hunter was a nationwide law firm with years of experience and made other misrepresentations designed to convince customers to stay with the company.

    ***

    On Dec. 3, 2014, a grand jury in Santa Ana, California, returned a 22-count indictment charging Jeremy Nelson, Elias Ponce and John Vartanian, all of Orange County, for mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in the same fraudulent scheme. The trial in that case is scheduled to begin on Feb. 16, 2016, in Los Angeles.

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