Assets Of Pay-Per Call Operators Frozen
"540" Telephone Hotlines Bilk Consumers Out of Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars in Fees
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer today announced that his office has obtained a court order freezing the assets of three companies and their principals who cheated thousands of consumers by luring them into making calls to their fraudulent "pay-per-call" employment, credit and apartment "540" hotlines. Assemblymen Jose R. Peralta and Peter Rivera joined Spitzer in warning consumers against pay-per-call phone scams.
The actions filed by Spitzer charge YMK Realty and its principal Yvonne Martinez Kaiser; Celestial Communications Corp. and its principal Angelina Gonzalez; and Canio Saluzzi with fraudulent, deceptive, and illegal practices. The temporary restraining orders, signed by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Schafer, prohibit the transfer of any assets pending a hearing on February 20th.
"These defendants deliberately target consumers who can least afford these charges. New Yorkers looking for jobs, credit, or apartments should not have to fall prey to scammers," said Attorney General Spitzer. "My office will work to stop individuals from falsely advertising services and from bilking consumers out of their hard-earned money."
Spitzer thanked Assemblymen Rivera and Peralta for their help in bringing forward today's actions.
"I would like to thank Attorney General Spitzer for his attentiveness in this matter. Today would not be possible without his intervention. I am proud to have blown the whistle on these predatory scam artists who have preyed on the hopes and aspirations of many needy people, not only in my district in Queens, but throughout the 5 boroughs. Now, the predator has become the hunted and justice will prevail," said Assemblyman Peralta.
"I commend Attorney General Spitzer on his prompt response to my request for an investigation in this telephone scam. While Verizon has criteria that businesses must meet when they are given an Information Provider number, simply disconnecting that number if a violation of their rules is found, is insufficient in dealing with this matter. This is why I introduced Assembly Bill 9741 which will prohibit telephone companies from giving out any pay-per-call numbers other than '900' area code numbers," said Assemblyman Rivera.
Canio Saluzzi (Brooklyn, NY) is charged with deceiving consumers into calling what appeared to be a local telephone number to obtain information about a New York City government jobs. In daily ads that read "NYC agencies Now Hiring, No Experience, Medical, Vacation, Sick, Pension." Saluzzi urged readers to call his "540" hotline. While the number appeared to be local, it actually carried an undisclosed charge of nearly $30 per call. Thousands of job seekers have called his telephone hotline, only to be provided information that is readily available for free elsewhere, such as the address and subway directions for the City's Personnel Department. As a result of the court's temporary restraining order the Attorney General was able to freeze assets of over $270,000.
YMK Realty (5904 18th Avenue, Suite 53, Brooklyn, NY) and its principal Yvonne Martinez Kaiser placed billboards throughout the city, offering credit cards to individuals with credit problems and with "no-broker's fee" apartment rentals. Consumers who called the "540" telephone numbers for credit cards, were also charged nearly $30, but were not offered credit cards. Similarly, when consumers called the 540 numbers advertised for apartments, they were again charged nearly $30. Consumers were provided with a list of apartments. However, the apartments were either unavailable or did not exist. The Attorney General was able to obtain a temporary restraining order for an amount to be determined.
Celestial Communications Corp. (30-58 Street, #2D, Astoria, NY) and its principal Angelina Gonzalez are charged with placing false advertisements offering "1,000 available Jobs." Consumers who call the advertised "540" number paid nearly $30 per call were not offered employment, but were given a list of businesses and unions to contact for jobs. As a result of the court's temporary restraining order the Attorney General was able to freeze assets of over $66,448.00.
The three cases seek an injunction baring these business practices and restitution for consumers and civil penalties.
Last year the Attorney General filed comments before the New York State Public Service Commission supporting Verizon's efforts to end its obligation to provide billing and collection services to the proprietors of 540 lines. In a ruling issued on November 12, 2003 the PSC agreed not to extend Verizon's obligation beyond March this year.
Consumers who have been victims of "540" telephone scams are urged to contact the New York State Attorney General's Consumer Helpline at 1-800-771-7755 or the OAG's Web site www.oag.state.ny.us/consumer/tips/loan_sharks.html.