Crackdown: Protecting Ohioans from modern-day crooks

By Melissa Szozda

Hackers, identity thieves, con-artists and other criminals work hard every day to get your money and personal information. Luckily, Ohio is working even harder to lock them up and protect citizens from becoming victims of consumer-related crimes.

In 2013, the Ohio Attorney General’s Economic Crimes Unit (ECU) indicted 18 defendants for a national telemarketing ring that stole more than $2 million from thousands of victims over a five-year period in the United Property Sales (UPS) case in Miami County. The victims—many of them elderly—owned inexpensive vacant land throughout the United States and were led to believe that their land was worth 15 times its assessed value. Some victims were told that UPS would sell their land to buyers, advertised at lavish shows in Las Vegas, Reno and St. Louis. Other victims were told that investors in a solar energy plant had already agreed to purchase their land for the inflated value, and they were required to prepay the closing costs to finalize the sale. However, there were actually never any buyers, closings or sales done in the lifetime of UPS.


The suspects went to great lengths to make their scheme appear legitimate. Videos on their website purportedly showed the suspects talking to a crowd in a video filmed at one of their Las Vegas shows. However, the indictment alleged that the video was actually filmed in an empty banquet room in Troy, Ohio. In the end, victims were convinced to pay fees as high as $16,000 to guarantee the sale of their land when, in reality, there was never any intention to perform the services. The ECU worked with law enforcement from across the country to indict, arrest and prosecute these individuals.


The ECU also indicted members of
the “Circleville 30,” which consisted of a group of relatives and friends who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from elderly homeowners after claiming to perform various types of home improvement work.1 This case was especially important to Ohioans, as many of the same members of the Circleville 30 were previously prosecuted for the exact same behavior in 2000.

Created in 2011, the ECU works with county prosecutors and local law enforcement to investigate economic crimes. These cases generally target the “worst of the worst” scammers whose actions are aligned more with egregious theft than with non-compliance with the CSPA. To
date, the ECU has indicted 82 individuals, leading to 53 convictions.

In 2012, the attorney general was successful in passing legislation that granted the ECU subpoena power for any frauds facilitated through the use of a telecommunications device—including computers connected to the Internet, telephones, cell phones, and fax machines, which has proven to be a very useful tool.2 According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, in 2012, Ohio ranked ninth among all states in crimes committed using the Internet, costing Ohioans an estimated $9.9 million.3


The ECU is just one way the Attorney General’s Office protects consumers. As technology and consumer issues have evolved in recent years, the office has expanded efforts to protect consumers in new areas, including cybercrime, data privacy and identity theft. Recent legislation has also changed the consumer landscape, from how cases civilly proceed to advanced regulation for new industries. Overall, the goal remains the same: to protect consumers in the state of Ohio from unfair and deceptive acts and practices.


Consumer Sales Practices Act

The Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (CSPA), enacted in 1972, governs consumer transactions between consumers (individuals) and suppliers (businesses) and guards against unfair, deceptive and unconscionable acts and practices.4 The CSPA provides the Attorney General with a number of remedies, ranging from cease and desist orders and assurances of voluntary compliance (which are essentially contracts between the state and the supplier) to formal lawsuits.5 In addition, the Attorney General and private plaintiffs may seek declaratory, injunctive, and/or monetary relief, often in the form of consumer restitution and civil penalties.6

In 2013, the Attorney General’s Office fielded more than 26,000 complaints from consumers. To facilitate resolution, complaints are entered into an informal dispute resolution process. In this process a consumer complaint specialist, who advocates on behalf of the consumer, attempts to work with the consumer and supplier
to obtain an amicable resolution between both parties. Attorneys are permitted to file complaints on behalf of their clients, as long as the subject matter of the complaint is not actively in litigation; however, all correspondence is exchanged between the attorney general and the consumer.

If, in the course of the dispute resolution
process, complaint specialists find a pattern of bad conduct, the supplier may be referred
to a consumer protection investigator. After review, the investigator may find that the supplier’s actions demand legal action, in which case a civil attorney is assigned to determine if the supplier may be in violation of any one of 40 state consumer protection laws ranging from home solicitation sale laws, to telephone solicitation laws, to
hearing aid laws.7 Additionally, the attorney general has the ability to file cases under certain federal laws if such jurisdiction is delegated under the law.

Identity Theft Unit

Identity theft, the most reported consumer complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, is quickly becoming the most common consumer complaint to the Attorney General’s Office. In 2012, the Attorney General’s Office formed the Identity Theft Unit (IDTU), which provides two types of assistance to victims. The first is self-help assistance, in which the Attorney General’s Office sends the victim a guide on how to rectify the identity theft. The guide contains what steps to take, who to contact and how to contact them. The more popular of the
two programs is traditional assistance, in which a consumer advocate is assigned to contact the various entities who may have erroneous information—credit reporting agencies, creditors and debt collectors—to rectify the effects of the identity theft. In 2013, the IDTU received 580 complaints and saved Ohioans approximately $253,000 in fraudulent debt.

The attorney general, along with law enforcement,
assist victims of identity theft by advising them of the steps they need to take to rectify identity theft: obtain a credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies; contact the victim’s banks and credit cards companies; and place an initial fraud alert with the credit reporting agencies.8 The Attorney General’s Office also offers permanent security freezes at no cost for victims of identity theft in Ohio.9

Consumer data privacy

The expansion of technology includes the expansion of data sharing, personally identifiable information and other privacy protections. On any given day, a consumer may type in a username and password or
enter into an online transaction. Due to the popularity and the wealth of personal information floating in cyberspace, it is important that someone police data privacy.

The attorney general has the ability to
participate in multi-state investigations and litigation, a unique tool in which many
states come together to investigate and/or litigate against one common entity. This tool has proven to be especially useful in the field of data privacy, as it has allowed states to join forces to hold companies accountable to a number of states and to create what many states agree to be a company’s best practices in the data privacy realm.

In 2013, the attorney general entered into
two multi-state assurances of voluntary compliance in the area of privacy efforts, both with Google, Inc. The first case, Google Street view, alleged that Google had captured information from private wireless networks while the Google Street view car was mapping different geographical areas.10
In the assurance executed with the states, Google acknowledged the information may have included addresses of requested Web pages, partial or complete email communications, and confidential or private information being transmitted to or from the network user. Google has since disabled or removed the equipment and software used to collect the data and has agreed not to collect any additional information without notice and consent. The 38 participating states and the District of Columbia were awarded $7 million in the aggregate, with
$162,000.45 allotted for Ohio.

The second Google, Inc. case involved
Apple’s Safari browser in which 37 states and the District of Columbia alleged that Google circumvented Safari’s browser settings to place cookies on the consumer’s device.11 In doing so, Google could track the user’s browsing history without the user’s permission. In the assurance, Google agreed to not override a browser’s cookie-blocking
settings without the consumer’s consent; not misrepresent or omit material information to consumers about how they can use any
Google product; and improve the information it provides to consumers regarding cookies. The states were awarded $17 million in the aggregate, with $716,624 allotted for Ohio.

State legislative changes

In addition to the above-mentioned efforts regarding consumer protection, the Attorney General’s Office has also taken steps to work with the Ohio and federal legislature to pass acts and amendments related to consumer protection. In 2012, the Ohio Legislature passed Ohio’s Right to Cure Act, which affects how private plaintiffs can proceed with litigation under the CSPA.12 The Right to Cure Act dictates that after filing a complaint in court, the consumer must allow a supplier, if the supplier so desires, 30 days (from service) to send the consumer a cure offer. The supplier is required to file a copy of the cure offer with the court. The cure offer must contain specific language stating that the supplier is issuing an offer to cure, an offer for monetary compensation, an offer for reasonable attorneys’ fees up to $2,500, and an offer for court costs related to the filing of the complaint.13

The consumer then has 30 days to accept or reject the cure offer and to file the rejection or acceptance with the court. If the consumer does not file anything with the court, the offer is considered rejected. If the consumer rejects the offer and proceeds with litigation or arbitration and is awarded an amount less than or equal to the supplier’s original offer, the consumer is unable to recover treble damages and court costs and attorneys’ fees incurred after the supplier’s offer to cure.


Federal legislative changes

The largest legislative change in the consumer arena over the past few years has been the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.14 While the CFPB stands to address markets traditionally reserved for federal regulation, such as banks, the CFPB has also displayed interest in matters that fall under the CSPA, such as debt collection. Moreover, subject to a few exceptions, Dodd-Frank provides for states’ attorneys general to enforce specific rules enacted by the CFPB, as well as the ban against general unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts and practices.15

In addition to the formation of the CFPB, some changes in federal laws affect Ohio consumers. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission’s Telemarketing Sale Rule was amended.16 The amendment dictated that debt settlement companies who solicit via telephone must follow a new set of rules, which dramatically changed the fee structure for debt settlement services. Specifically, these companies are prohibited from charging fees prior to settling at least one of the consumer’s debts. The amendment also requires debt settlement companies to create “dedicated accounts” for consumers to accrue money in—with interest and full removal power belonging to the consumer.


In 2013, amendments were made to the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act.17 Most notably, those amendments prohibit calls placed to cellular phones using autodialers or to deliver prerecorded messages without an emergency purpose or express written consent from the called party. Additionally, telemarketing calls placed to residential landlines using autodialers or to deliver prerecorded messages are also prohibited absent express written consent even where the called party is an existing customer. Tax-exempt nonprofit organizations need only have express consent, rather than express written consent. The prohibition on autodialed and prerecorded message calls do not apply to non-sales or informational calls, including calls from debt collectors.


Resources for attorneys

The Attorney General is required to make available for public inspection, among other things, all judgments issued by state courts pertaining to the CSPA.18 These decisions are maintained in the Online Public Inspection File (OPIF), housed on the Attorney General’s webpage.19 OPIF allows attorneys to view court decisions to see what practices have previously violated the CSPA.
Prior decisions found in OPIF are helpful to private plaintiffs in two ways. First, as the act or practice has already been declared in violation of the CSPA, the plaintiff does not bear the burden of establishing that the act or practice is, in fact, unfair or deceptive. Second, once an act or practice has been adjudged to violate the CSPA, the consumer can then seek treble [actual] damages.20 Therefore, OPIF can be a very helpful tool for attorneys in evaluating cases and assessing damages.

Additionally, the Attorney General’s webpage has many useful resources. The webpage contains information on various consumer protection laws, tips on consumer protection, press releases on recent lawsuits, and a schedule of upcoming presentations. The website also allows consumers and small businesses to request educational presentations for groups of 20 or more people.


Accommodating the changing landscape

Technology and market shifts will continue to change the consumer landscape. New regulations will emerge and the application of the CSPA and other consumer protection laws will evolve to meet the changing climate.

Despite these shifts, however, the importance of consumer protection to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and to the legal landscape as a whole will remain constant. Consumer protection affects individuals on a financial and personal level every day, and despite inevitable changes, the significance of consumer protection efforts in the state and nationwide will persist. Understanding the changes in consumer law and application will undoubtedly help attorneys, advisors and consumers.


Author bio

Melissa Szozda is an associate assistant attorney general and the director of consumer education and the identity theft unit in the consumer protection section of the Office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. She is a 2008 graduate of the University of Toledo College of Law.

Endnotes

1 See Fairfield County Court of Common Pleas cases 13-CR-202 through 13-CR-208.
2 R.C. 109.88(C).
3 Internet Crime Complaint Center’s 2012 Annual Report, Appendix III, P. 23-24; http://www.ic3.gov/media/annualreports.aspx.
4 R.C. 1345.01, et seq.
5 R.C. 1345.06, R.C. 1345.07.
6 R.C. 1345.07, R.C. 1345.09.
7 R.C. 1347.12; R.C. 1333.91; R.C. 1334.01; R.C. 4505.181; R.C. 5311.25; R.C. 1349.04; R.C. 1345.01; OAC 109:4-3-01; R.C. 1349.17; R.C. 1349.18; R.C. 1349.52; R.C. 4712.01; R.C. 1345.94; R.C. 1349.61; R.C. 1345.31; R.C. 1349.27; R.C. 1349.81; R.C. 4710.01; R.C. 1322.01; R.C. 1345.21; R.C. 1345.71; R.C. 4775.02; R.C. 4549.41; R.C. 1345.41; R.C. 4905.72; R.C. 1317.01; R.C. 1349.19; R.C. 1321.35; R.C. 109.87; R.C. 4719.01; R.C. 4505.181; R.C. 3953.35; R.C. 1345.81.
8 Visit www.annualcreditreport.com.
9 R.C. 1349.52
10 In re Google, Inc. (March 21, 2013).
11 In re Google, Inc. (Nov. 15, 2012).
12 R.C. 1345.092.
13 R.C. 1345.092(D).
14 12 USC 5491.
15 12 USC 5552.
16 16 CFR 310.4.
17 47 USC 227.
18 R.C. 1345.05(A)(3).
19 www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov.
20 R.C. 1345.09(B).

Phone

1-800-282-6556

Staff Directory

Contact Information

Hours

8 A.M. - 5 P.M.
Monday - Friday