Anatomy of A Scam Investigation, Chapter Four
[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.
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