By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Lombrage and Colon encountered no resistance as they served their soon-to-be ex-neighbors across the hall a document ordering them to cease operations, and turn over computers and financial records. Then they were off to Suite 407, one floor up, where a similar racket was abuzz.
Next stop: a five-story building about twenty blocks north at 3401 NW 82nd Avenue. By the time they arrived, however, telemarketers and managers had split from a large ground floor office. Lombrage says they left the telephones and terminals, but took the server. "The security guards said everyone just ran out of there," Lombrage recounts.
Over the next two weeks, the detectives and FTC agents closed down three more phone banks in the Doral area. They served restraining orders to several defendants instructing them to cease operations and fill out forms detailing their financial assets, real estate holdings, and other possessions such as automobiles.
One of the FTC's lead investigators on the case is Lew Freeman, a private Coconut Grove-based forensic accountant with much experience in federal fraud cases. Freeman says the scam started sometime in 2003 with the establishment of several companies, including Call Center Express and Pro Line Card LLC. Most of the eleven defendants named thus far are Guatemalan. They include: Edgar Alirio Gonzalez and Pablo Jose Martinez (Call Center Express, Inc.); Carlos Felipe Mendez and Julio Cesar Sandoval (Pro Line Card, LLC, among others). Lombrage says the owners of Abreu Advertsing, Liens and Rafael Abreu, who helped make and advertise the cards, are Cuban-Americans. Freeman notes that another defendant, a 33-year-old former bank executive named Jose Armando Llort, is a fugitive from Guatemala, where he is charged with embezzling several million dollars from the Banco de Credito Hipotecario Nacional.
Investigators believe the seven operations closed down thus far were bringing in $600,000 per month. But they suspect there are other "franchises" out there. "I think we got the tip of the iceberg," Freeman surmises.
A criminal case could ensue, if the U.S. or state attorneys decide to get involved. Thus far, it remains a civil matter to be waged with restraining orders, the result of a series of FTC complaints against the defendants, 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 Call Center Express's bank accounts. In a report to the FTC, Freeman says he has identified eight banks the defendants used. Several of those accounts have "a preponderance of over-drafted balances," he notes. Which means a lot of the money has probably departed these shores. Perhaps some of the defendants have, too. Lombrage was going to deliver restraining orders to Sandoval and the Abreus, but says she hasn't been able to locate them. --Kirk Nielsen