Anatomy of A Scam Investigation, Chapter Four

Effluvia

[Wondering what's going on here? Check out the Chapter Index on this series.]

This will be a brief chapter.

In Chapter One I discussed the fake-invoice mail fraud scheme operated by UST Development, Inc. and its principal David Bell. In Chapter Two we discussed Google search techniques and useful sites like the Better Business Bureau. In Chapter Three we discussed some Google search results suggesting how widespread the fraud is, and the possibility that the same principals had conducted fraud under other names.

This chapter just has a couple of short updates.

First, the Better Business Bureau of Southern California is doing an admirable job: they got so many complaints about UST Development, Inc. / US Telecom, Inc. in a short time that they put up a well-crafted front-page warning about it:

In only the past two weeks, the Better Business Bureau of the Southland has received 18 consumer complaints–more than one every day–against US Telecom. Complainants report that they receive an invoice for $175.00 from the Ontario-based company for what is described as “Telecom Maintenance/Service Call.” No further information other than the company's phone and fax numbers, website, and address is given.

Most complainants say they never requested the service described and that no one from the company ever came to their facility. A recorded message informs those who call to ask about the invoice that their call will be returned within 48 hours, but complainants say that it can be several days before the return call, if, indeed, there is one at all.

US Telecom responds to customer inquiries by explaining that their invoice is for services it “can” provide, that they offer services the customer's telephone company does not, that the invoice was sent in error, that it's for maintenance coverage, that it's an advertisement and not a bill, etc.

Complaints received so far are all from residents of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The invoices US Telecom sends out are a ploy, commonly known as a solicitation in the guise of an invoice, designed to collect payments from businesses that pay, often in the belief that someone within their company requested the service, without checking further.

Nevertheless, the Better Business Bureau cautions, you should realize that federal law requires such solicitations to disclose, on their face and in 30-point or larger, boldface type, that they are solicitations. At the same time, scam artists will probably disregard that requirement, so you should also realize that the absence of the required notice does not necessarily mean the invoice is legitimate.

The BBB expects US Telecom's complaint numbers to climb and advises careful review of such invoices before paying. You can and should get a reliability report from the BBB, also before paying, which will tell you if the company has complaints against it. If you do pay and later realize you shouldn‘t have, you may also complain to the BBB. You can request a reliability report or file a complaint at http://www.la.bbb.org/ or by calling (909) 835-6064.

The BBB's summary tells us a few things about the scope of the scam:

1. David Bell is apparently using US Telecom and UST Development, Inc. interchangeably.
2. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of people who notice a scam report it. If the BBB got 18 complaints in as many days, the scope of the mailings is vast. [Federal defense lawyer joke: someone is going to learn the hard way the distinction between actual and intended loss.]
3. The different excuses/lulling/put-offs told to different victims is classic boiler-room-fraud behavior.
4. The complaints are clustered in a tight time range. This mail fraud scheme is breaking down very quickly.

Second, this series is drawing sizable search engine hits, which indicates that a lot of people are researching UST Development, Inc., US Telecom, and David Bell. A taste of the hits since September 10:

ust development ontario — 12
ust development scam — 3
www.ustdevelopment.com — 13
david bell ust — 3
ustdevelopment.com — 9
david bell ustdevelopment.inc
branden bell ontario ust
ust development fraud
fake invoice from ust development
ust development, inc, preventative maintenance
ust development scam invoices

. . . and many more.

My point? Well, scammers are scum. You knew that. But also, my point is that you can make a difference by writing on the internet. Two and a half years ago we linked to and discussed Kathleen Seidel's awesomely researched investigation of the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, a "charity" nominally raising money to benefit autism research but actually organized for the profit of telemarketers. Even though Kathleen did all the work, since we wrote about it, there have been almost a thousand search hits for "Autism Spectrum Foundation Foundation." It's the fourth most searched term on the site, after popehat (for people who forget our tricky url), Hermon Raju, and Tonya Craft. And hopefully, many of those thousand people followed our link to Kathleen Seidel's investigation and as a result donated their money to a real charity.

I hope that even a handful of people find us and don't send money to David Bell and UST Development — now, or when he rolls out his next scam. And I hope that even a handful of people will look at this and decide that if a big dummy like Ken can do this, they can, and will call out some other fraudsters. Join the good fight.

Edited to add: Welcome visitors from BoingBoing and Metafilter. Hope you enjoy the series. Coming soon: information gleaned from bankruptcy court records, and how and to whom to report scammers.

Edited to add: Chapter Five is up.

Additional update: please read this important note.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

45 Comments

45 Comments

  1. Justin T.  •  Sep 14, 2011 @11:03 pm

    Mr. Bell or whoever he is should only hope that he doesn't try to scam someone who agrees with his apparent belief that operating outside the boundaries of the law is acceptable if it gets you the desired results, even at the expense of someone else. Some drug cartel operative running a "business" gets one of these and realizes it's a scam, they may not be as friendly as our friends at Popehat have been.

  2. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Sep 15, 2011 @5:15 am

    Justin;

    Memo to Mr. Bell

    From; Your Secretary

    A Mr. Nunzio called while you were out. When told you weren't here he mumbled something about "kneecaps" and started to leave, so I gave him your home address. That was right, wasn't it?

    BTW my paycheck bounced. Have fun with Guido and Nunzio, jackass.

  3. cackalacka  •  Sep 15, 2011 @7:10 am

    This is all very timely; I was reading some posts at a car enthusiast site late last week/early this one, as a mask of a parts-supply scammer was falling off. It is crazy how fast that news bounced from forum to forum, and now the third google-search result for this company's name starts with a cacophony of various boards discussing him.

    From now on, when I talk to friends about internet purchases from unknown third parties, in addition to 'If it sound too good to be true…' there are these four threads to refer them to…

  4. BL1Y  •  Sep 15, 2011 @7:11 am

    I periodically get a mailing from some company selling a court reporting service or something. Their "advertisement" looks exactly like an invoice, though it does say something like "this is not an invoice, you are under no obligation to pay."

    Sounds a lot like US Telecom, though I think they mailing I've been getting is a legit business that's just super tacky in their marketing. I just toss them like any other junk mail, but if I remember, I'll scan the next one.

  5. Ken  •  Sep 15, 2011 @8:12 am

    @BL1Y, to have a chance of being legal, it needs to have a warning with words to the effect of "This is a solicitation for the order of goods or services, or both, and not a bill, invoice, or statement of account due. You are under no obligation to make any payments on account of this offer unless you accept this offer.” In addition, that warning has to be "conspicuous and legible" and in contrasting font, type, orcolor with the rest of the print on the page.

  6. Goober  •  Sep 15, 2011 @9:25 am

    Ken;

    I like to think that there are pants being shat over at the UST headquarters over this. I still think it is hilarious that the guy called you. He must be absolutely perplexed at your actions, since you weren't technically even taken for any money in this. My guess is that he ususally tells folks who sent him cash and then discovered the fraud that it was all a "big misunderstanding" and refunds their money to them, and they go away.

    He has no money to refund to you, however, and I'm sure he is frantically trying to figure out a way to make you go away.

    My only advice to you is to remain at least somewhat vigilant. Scammers are scum, remember, and they may be acquainted with scum of a different, more violent sort. Not that you should be afraid or anything, just keep an eye open until this all blows over.

  7. Ruth  •  Sep 15, 2011 @1:09 pm

    I'm bookmarking this set of posts, I thought I had a clue when it came to using the internet to investigate someone or something…..

  8. EH  •  Sep 15, 2011 @2:36 pm

    Don't forget the hidden lesson of this update: The BBB are themselves a scam, are absolutely ineffectual, and (can and) will do absolutely nothing besides sit on their hands and collect membership dollars. Their warning is no more authoritative than any of the self-researched comments I've seen on whocalled.us and similar telemarketer/scam repositories.

  9. random_guy  •  Sep 15, 2011 @3:04 pm

    I'm still a little surprised this kind of thing can even go on in this day and age. My mother got a suspicious "invoice" in the mail a while ago and the first thing I did was google the name for her. 8/10 of the first results were threads about a scam and how it was just another misleading subscription service.

    Do people really just write checks for things without even doing the slightest bit of research on who they are sending them to?

  10. Ken  •  Sep 15, 2011 @3:08 pm

    @random_guy: It's a numbers game. If they send out 100,000 pieces of mail and 1% bites, that's 1,000 * $175.

    @EH You are preaching to the choir. But they are still useful in this context.

  11. Ken  •  Sep 15, 2011 @4:14 pm

    On Woopra, saw someone came her with search for (ust development ken [realname].) IP address came back to lawyer's office in downtown LA. Called lawyer to ask her if she represented David Bell and if she had any questions for me. She claimed no.

    Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?

  12. Charlemagne  •  Sep 16, 2011 @8:00 am

    I got a random call from a toll-free number several times yesterday. When I Googled the number, I found numerous notes that it was a scammer. So I decided to have some fun. When they called back at dinnertime, I answered, "FBI Atlanta Field Office, How may I help you?" I got stunned silence.

  13. Ken  •  Sep 16, 2011 @11:08 am

    On Woopra, saw that someone in Alhambra, California (in the San Gabriel Valley, roughly midway between where I am and UST's address) has visited about 25 times. Once they got here via Bennett's link; once they got here by Googling my real name. They are at IP 99.56.243.51, and sometimes they use a Mac running Firefox 3, and other times they've used an iPad. Howdy, folks in Alhambra!

  14. EH  •  Sep 16, 2011 @11:10 am

    LOL…feeling the heat? :) Maybe someone's been crank calling them. I know I've thought about it, but I didn't want to spoil anything ahead of your series.

  15. Ken  •  Sep 16, 2011 @11:16 am

    Crank calling is falling to their level. Everyone should be better than they are.

    Just a couple of thoughts:

    1. It's too bad that criminal case files get destroyed after a certain number of years.
    2. But it's nice to be able to still print out detailed dockets.
    3. I wonder what Glendale Municipal Code 301(A) was, back in 1992? I'm sure I'll find it somewhere.

  16. Ken  •  Sep 16, 2011 @11:21 am

    Also, Woopra has a feature that lets me try to open a chat with any visitor.

    Just saying.

  17. Bob  •  Sep 16, 2011 @11:38 am

    Hey, it's my turn to give out free legal advice.

    To UST,

    Walk away. It's not worth it.

  18. PLW  •  Sep 16, 2011 @11:45 am

    I think they tried.

  19. Scott Jacobs  •  Sep 16, 2011 @2:34 pm

    Ken, if you randomly opened a chat window with me while I was on the site, I would likely crap myself…

    Hey, I was wondering… Can you give yourself different names when you open that window? Like "Ken" or "God" or "NSA Agent #2541"?

  20. MP  •  Sep 17, 2011 @6:49 pm

    Two years ago I did a similar scam post on my blog. To this day, people are still Googling, finding and adding to the archives of scam emails.
    http://www.advertisingmiami.com/blog/2009/10/how-the-printing-quote-scam-doesnt-work/

  21. Ken  •  Sep 17, 2011 @6:53 pm

    That's some good work, MP. Thanks!

  22. MP  •  Sep 17, 2011 @6:57 pm

    That reminds me… I also received a fax this month purporting to be from Col. Mummar Ghadaffi's assistant who wanted my help in getting $24 million out of the country…

  23. Geir  •  Sep 17, 2011 @7:44 pm

    @MP – you know, that might actually be real!

  24. Ken  •  Sep 17, 2011 @8:17 pm

    The BoingBoing hit tonight has driven our biggest traffic ever — 603 on at once at one point — even on a Saturday. Imagine what they drive on a weekday.

    Looking forward to putting up Chapter Five, maybe by tomorrow.

  25. gerbel  •  Sep 17, 2011 @8:40 pm

    I think the views on this may jump higher.
    Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame just posted this link on his Twitter feed.
    its what brought me to it. Ive been a fan of 419 Eater for a while too.

  26. joyful  •  Sep 17, 2011 @8:56 pm

    Found this series via Adam Savage's twitter feed and boingboing. Thanks for the pointers on how to search these guys out.

  27. DFM  •  Sep 17, 2011 @8:58 pm

    I got here via a link to BoingBoing from Adam Savage of Mythbusters, and after reading a few unrelated articles, I just want to say….How did I ever live without knowing about the existence of this site?! Bookmark added. I just hope I have time to check it more than once a month!

  28. Scott Jacobs  •  Sep 17, 2011 @9:18 pm

    I just wanna say that I was coming here before it was cool. :)

  29. Scott Jacobs  •  Sep 17, 2011 @9:20 pm

    @DFM

    Sir, I posit that you, in fact, did not live. You merely went through the motions until you found your true home.

    Your once worthless, empty life may now become one capable of being truly fulfilled…

  30. jjsaul  •  Sep 17, 2011 @10:29 pm

    Nice work!

    You've probably already done this, but one route I used to track a scammer who was sending an elderly relative "free cruise" mailings was to check out their USPS bulk mail license number.

  31. Scott Jacobs  •  Sep 17, 2011 @11:29 pm

    Just for the enjoyment of Ken…

    At one point, years and years ago, my father kept getting faxes (over the one phone line in the house) from what turned out to be a travel agency with a 1-800 number (we learned this by setting up the modem to accept faxes – that;s how long ago this was).

    So after seeing the fax, dad called the non-800 number, and explained that the 2:00am calls were annoying, please would they make sure his number was removed…

    "Of course," they said. "Ever so sorry…"

    That night, and the next two night, we caught more "faxes".

    So dad, as is his wont as a raging asshole, set the modem to dial the 1-800 number every 10 seconds or so, hold the line for a few seconds, and then hang up.

    He had it do that for about a week, and then shut it off.

    The next day, we got a very upset phone call about what we were doing. He calmly explained that we were getting calls very, very late at night from their fax machine, and after we had called and explained the problem we continued to get the calls.

    He then said "either you make it stop, tonight, or I will get every person I know, and every person my son – who is not unknown on every regional BBS in the central Illinois area – knows call you repeatedly for a month."

    Oddly enough, we never got another one of those fax machine calls…

  32. Brian  •  Sep 18, 2011 @12:27 am

    I had a similar early morning fax experience – after weeks of fax calls to a home number at 0230 on Sundays, I attached a fax machine and found it was a flier from a wholesale supplier to a company who had our number ten years before.

    I rang and asked them to stop. They said they couldn't and anyway didn't have to, because their autodialler was using an 'official list' they had bought from the phone co. I suggested they got that list updated , they said it was too expensive, so tough.

    Long story short, I googled them and found their MDs home number. Irang backhand said if they didn't stop then every time their fax rang me at 0230 on Sundats, I'd ring him and complain. At 0245 on Sundays.

    They stopped.

  33. Timothy Campbell  •  Sep 18, 2011 @2:40 am

    Ah, what fun it was to read the first three chapters! I've always been fascinated by scam artists. It's not so much their techniques (which any idiot can emulate) but the way their minds work. Whether it's fake invoices or fake psychic readings, these freaks seem to think that other folks are there for them to pluck. (That isn't a typo.)

    I often wonder if such people are brain damaged. I am not kidding about that. Are their mirror neurons kaput or something?

  34. piratomon  •  Sep 18, 2011 @4:58 am

    nice postings, interesting story.

  35. Dan  •  Sep 18, 2011 @7:38 am

    It would be sweet sweet irony if your firm billed for the time spent investigating this case.

  36. Upbeat  •  Sep 18, 2011 @9:09 am

    Beware! This becomes addictive. If you are already an addict, you will probably enjoy researching Steve Sunyich of Saint George, UT. It's amazing what you can discover about a scammer. Drama and intrigue. I say intrigue because he's still rolling on as far as I know. BTW, I'm not at all worried about a libel suit by using the word scammer.

    Thanks, Ken! Love the story.

    PS – IJSaul, Good idea! Don't forget Edgar Online and the Non-profit search site Guidestar.org.

  37. louise  •  Sep 18, 2011 @10:30 am

    A surprising amount of irritation can be easily created with a fax machine. We got made at a legitimate doctor's office one time for forcing us to fax the same form 3 times, insisting that they did not have it. DH had had it with them – he sent the same form to them, and set it to fax 50 times. I believe they were much more careful after that.

  38. AlphaCentauri  •  Sep 18, 2011 @11:52 am

    This is absolutely amazing; I thought I was pretty good at digging up things on email scammers through Google and DomainTools and TelcoData etc., but I can't believe how much new stuff I'm learning and you're only partway into the series. I was linked here from a post on Google+ https://plus.google.com/103112149634414554669/posts/iJ5Bbymrdok and have passed on the tip at our antispam forum at inboxrevenge.com.

  39. Arthur Rubin  •  Sep 18, 2011 @12:49 pm

    Visiting from Quatloos. You'd think they'd at least randomize the "invoice" amount slightly, say some $175, some $180, some $183, etc.

  40. AlphaCentauri  •  Sep 18, 2011 @1:11 pm

    @Arthur Rubin: If they actually are answering phone calls, their workers have to know in advance what the "invoice" amount is, since they can't exactly look up customer files. :P

  41. Timothy Campbell  •  Sep 18, 2011 @3:37 pm

    If I might pick up on something Arthur Rubin said above, in my experience scam artists aren't particularly clever. Or maybe they are but they only do the bare minimum of work it takes to get the job done.

    I do sometimes wonder if scam artists would find it easier to just do things on the up-and-up. It's possible that going legit would be much less fun because they actually enjoy fleecing — and thus one-upping — their marks. In other words, it's an ego thing, not just a money thing.

  42. DV`  •  Sep 18, 2011 @3:59 pm

    Well done, sir! Thanks for this series. <3 Popehat.

  43. I-)  •  Sep 18, 2011 @4:33 pm

    can't wait for chapter five, when popehat swoops down and serves justice!

    I-)

  44. Bobby Jean  •  Sep 18, 2011 @9:46 pm

    This is fantastic research work. Many thx, Popehat! You're a working class hero in my book.
    Here's where I get depressed; a.) this is a lot of work, which takes a lot of time. The evidence shows that these scumbags have been fairly successful for a very long time despite severe clumsiness and lots of legal attention paid to them. One can see that the speed of crime is still faster than justice, a LOT faster. b.) The BBB is a private organization, whose charter is the encouragement of good business behavior by shining light on the bad, which is very different from actual commerce law enforcement. It's nothing more than a public repository of complaints, which on the one hand I'm grateful exists at all, but am not going to cross-check before I drop a quarter into a shady-looking privatized pay phone. c.) whose charter is it to pursue these scumbags, anyway? I believe it's the FTC, so where have they been all this time? Is it a matter of too many outlaws and not enough sheriffs, or has the FTC just checked out of their enforcement duties entirely? Remember, the Florida-based 'car-warranty-renewal' scam went on for almost a year, and the FTC did nothing until the scammers started bothering IMPORTANT people like Sen. Chuck Schumer on his (gasp!) private cell phone. (bless him, BTW) Where were the Do-Not-Call Registry goons?
    So in the interest of all our collective interests, where's the Law with a capital 'L'? Or is this the wild west? Is the subtext here that we can't rely on law enforcement to protect us from business-based criminals anymore? Community-based vigilance is great, but it's no cure-all. In the grander view, we're losing to scumbags like this.
    So who's in charge?

  45. Joe  •  Sep 26, 2011 @1:21 pm

    If you would like more information on these scumbags, feel free to check the CA court docs. There are several judgments against UST and David Bell out there for some good ole fashioned night reading.