When detectives Yolanda Lombrage and David Colon of the Miami-Dade Police Economic Crimes Bureau swung into action to bust their biggest credit-card caper in memory, they didn't even have to leave the building.
The bureau is headquartered in Suite 301 of a suburban Miami office complex. On September 17, following a preliminary huddle in their office with agents from the Federal Trade Commission, the detectives simply walked across the hall and knocked on the door of Suite 318.
Inside, telemarketers were standing by for calls from credit-starved immigrants, lured by commercials on Univision and Telemundo affiliates across the United States. Just send a money order for $299, and soon a credit card as good as a MasterCard or Visa would be on its way -- or so they allegedly told would-be recipients. The card advertised in the Bay Area was called Pro Line, but customers in other markets were pitched Latin Card Plus, Advantage Platinum Card, La Familia Gold Card, Stored Value MasterCard, Premier Card Plus, or Kapital Card Plus.
"We don't ask nothing about the person -- where they work, how much they are making in the payroll," Carlos Mendez, a principal of Pro Line Card LLC, told the Express in August, when reporter Kara Platoni was investigating complaints from local Latinos who'd found that their new "credit" cards were about as useful as an old Woolworth's card (See "Latinos Warn of 'False' Credit Card," Cityside, 9/1). The Pro Line card, for example, was accepted only by a Pro Line Web site and catalogue operation offering merchandise such as computers, televisions, CD players, watches, and drum kits at grossly inflated prices and shipping charges.
Lombrage and Colon encountered no resistance as they served their soon-to-be-ex-neighbors a document ordering them to cease operations and turn over computers and financial records. Then the cops were off to Suite 407, one floor up, where a similar racket was abuzz.
Next stop: a five-story building about twenty blocks north. By the time they arrived, however, the telemarketers and managers had split. Lombrage says they left behind telephones and computer terminals, but took their computer server. "The security guards said everyone just ran out of there," the detective recounts. Over the next two weeks, the detectives and FTC agents closed down three more call centers and served restraining orders on several defendants instructing them to cease operations.
Lew Freeman, an accountant with much experience in federal fraud cases, is among the FTC's lead investigators on the case. He says the credit-card operation started sometime last year with the establishment of several companies, including Call Center Express and Pro Line.
Two people who helped make and advertise the cards are Cuban Americans, detectives say, but most of the eleven defendants named thus far are Guatemalan. They include principals Carlos Felipe Mendez and Julio Cesar Sandoval of Pro Line Card LLC; Edgar Alirio Gonzalez and Pablo Jose Martinez of Call Center Express, Inc.; and 33-year-old Jose Armando Llort Quinteno, an ex-banker and fugitive from Guatemala where, according to Freeman, he was charged with embezzling millions of dollars from the Banco de Credito Hipotecario Nacional. "He's Mr. Big," Freeman says.
Investigators believe the seven operations busted thus far were bringing in $600,000 per month -- $7.2 million per year. And they suspect there are other "franchises" in operation. "I think we got the tip of the iceberg," Freeman says.
Lombrage says Martinez wasn't home when she and her partner showed up to serve him. But someone at the residence called him and passed the phone to the detective, who persuaded Martinez to come home along with defendant Gonzalez. "They didn't give me a hard time," she says. "I think they responded because I made it very clear they weren't going to be arrested."
Not arrested? Well, not yet, anyway. A criminal case may ensue, but the restraining orders are a civil matter in which the FTC has filed a series of complaints against the business operators citing federal laws regarding telemarketing and consumer fraud.
Pending the outcome, a court-appointed receiver (Freeman, in this case) takes control of all of the defendants' assets he can get his hands on. As of last week, they included computers, telephones, office furniture, some of the merchandise once available on the credit-card Web sites, and about $80,000 from one of the Call Center Express bank accounts.
In his report to the FTC, Freeman says he has identified eight banks the defendants used. Several of those accounts have a "preponderance of overdrafted balances," he notes, which means a lot of the money has probably departed these shores. Perhaps some of the defendants have, too -- Lombrage has tried to deliver restraining orders to Sandoval and the Cubans, but has yet to locate them.
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