Anatomy Of A Scam Investigation, Chapter Ten
What's this all about? The index of prior chapters is here.
Greetings, scambusters. Back in Chapter Nine I pointed out that David Bell and his UST entities were still, months after being revealed, running the mail fraud scheme I first described in Chapter One.
Tipsters from across the western United States continue to send me examples. Here are invoices received in Arizona, Oregon, and Washington. I've redacted them to protect the intended victims from any con-man harassment or retaliation. There are a few important points to note:
1. David Bell and his UST companies are going aggressively multi-state. The is common with mail fraud schemes as they develop — it's harder for victims in other states to get law enforcement support.
2. Either my tipsters are disproportionately government workers, or Bell and his team are targeting government offices for the invoices. That is not uncommon among fraudsters — accounts payable procedure in federal, state, and local government offices can be lax, and bogus invoices can yield successes that private targets do not. Of course, targeting government offices also opens up a new array of criminal statutes . . . .
3. Bell and UST are morphing and rebranding the scheme. Previously their invoices used "UST Development, Inc." as the soliciting entity. Their next generations of invoices use a generic "UST" and use a reference to the "www.us-telecom.com" url rather than "www.ustdevelopment.com" (though both lead to the same site). Bell has almost certainly made this change because the Google profile for "UST Development" overwhelmingly emphasizes fraud, whereas the generic "UST" reveals little. Scammers commonly change the names and branding associated with their schemes in order to make it harder for potential victims to detect the fraud. Though there are a few stray internet references to a "UST, Inc.", research at the California Secretary of State's Business Search Portal shows that there is no current, active UST, Inc. authorized do to business in California.
4. Bell is also changing his mailing address. Note that the latest invoices change from the familiar Ontario street addresses to an Ontario Post Office box address. Once again, this helps Bell and UST stay one step ahead of Google — the street address search results are cluttered with references to fraud, while the new box is relatively "clean." The aim is to thwart the very casual searcher. Google shows me that the box number — at least at some point — was the mailing address of the Ontario branch of a national auto supply company. In a few Friday calls, low-level staff at the company professed ignorance of the box. It's possible that the company abandoned the box and Bell and his team bought it. It's also possible that a member of Bell's team is an insider at the company and is using their box as a "safe" mail drop. I'm following up with some calls higher up the chain, as well as correspondence to the company's national office. We'll see.
5. At this point, I'd characterize the evidence of fraudulent intent as overwhelming. Con artists typically plan to argue "we meant well, we didn't realize there was anything wrong or misleading about this solicitation." That defense has been thoroughly stomped by now. Leaving aside their communications with me and their monitoring of this series, David Bell's UST team has been busily responding to dozens of Better Business Bureau complaints, saying roughly the same thing every time:
I would like to start off by apologizing for any inconvenience or confusion this invoice may have caused. We here at UST sell, service, and maintain business phone systems and inside wiring. The invoice you received was not for services rendered but instead for preventative maintenance for the year to come. The preventative maintenance covers your inside wiring and preventative maintenance for a 12 month period, opposed to being billed for every service call, or at 15 min increment. This is an invoice that is sent out once a year for a full service maintenance agreement. This invoice is optional; it is not a mandatory service. Once again I apologize and I hope this clarifies the misunderstanding. We will not contact this company in the future.
Bell and his team probably see this as keeping their stories straight. In fact, all it shows is that they were aware that many consumers found their advertisement to be confusingly similar to an invoice. Yet they've continued to send that invoice, without major substantive changes, across the West — even after the Better Business Bureau (and I) pointed out that it violates very specific federal law prohibiting ads made to look like invoices, and even after the BBB turned up its fraud rhetoric against UST. In fact, they've continued it after local media has reported on the scam. This utterly quells the "it's not really misleading, we didn't mean to mislead" defense. If Bell and his team had been acting in anything remotely resembling good faith, they would have altered the invoice to comply with federal law — or at least to remove the elements that make it so misleading.
They've made very small gestures towards changes — for instance, by changing "amount due" to "amount," and removing the "past due" boxes — but the document overall is still clearly designed to look like an invoice, and the change really does little more than prove consciousness of guilt.
Moreover, I suspect that law enforcement investigation and/or civil discovery will demonstrate that the "we actually provide preventative maintenance" defense is fraudulent. The bankruptcy cases of UST Development, UST Dry Utilities, David Bell, and Branden Bell contradict the suggestion that they have the equipment and resources to provide preventative telecom maintenance across the West. Moreover, several tipsters indicate that they have called and asked "UST" to send them materials about the services offered, but have not received anything.
Many have expressed frustration that David Bell and his crew are able to conduct mail fraud so openly for so many months without result. I admit I have been frustrated as well. However, at the moment, for reasons I will not discuss, I am not frustrated. More on that in the next chapter, perhaps.
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