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Pinellas Park telemarketers ran magazine scam, investigators say

PINELLAS PARK — They called about the one thing Andrew Fair's mother won't go without: her magazines.

The 78-year-old subscribes to Reader's Digest, Guideposts and Family Circle, but the beginning stages of dementia mean she can't always remember what she paid for her last renewal.

So when a Pinellas Park telemarketer called the Pennsylvania woman and asked for her credit card number, she gave it. The company, U.S. Digest LLC, called seven more times over the course of a year and charged her more than $1,400, Fair said. Without the payments, the telemarketer told her, the magazines would stop coming.

"Her generation is very trusting," Fair, 45, said.

But according to court documents, U.S. Digest LLC wasn't affiliated with the magazines at all.

The company's owner, Nekenja Barima Franklin, 36, was charged late last month with operating an unlicensed telemarketing operation, employing unlicensed telemarketing sales and unlicensed real estate activity. He was also charged with violating probation.

Two employees were also arrested.

Franklin has been featured in the Times before. Dozens of customers accused his Pro Player LLC of taking money for timeshare sales that never went through.

In 2012, Franklin told the Times that Pro Player had closed. His new company, he said, would sell magazine subscriptions.

• • •

The company was fined $2,000 in May for four violations of the Do Not Call Statute. Though 17 complaints were filed against U.S. Digest LLC since it opened, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services investigators may never have looked into the company if a former employee hadn't come forward.

That's because consumers often never discovered that they had been defrauded. In Fair's mother's case, the magazines kept coming, and she didn't see anything wrong.

"If they did see the charge come across, they probably thought it was a legitimate subscription," spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said.

But the tipster gave them a detailed account of the business' dealings.

In late April, an undercover state investigator was hired as a telemarketer at the company, at 4950 Park Blvd.

He was trained by a man named Mike McLaughlin, who told him they target elderly people and warned him to get the credit card number "no matter what," according to a search warrant filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

The investigator was told to create a fake price scheme and "start high," the warrant states.

The undercover investigator also saw a man in the same office use a scheme designed to extract sales fees from customers for tracts that would never be sold. It's nearly the same process Franklin was accused of using for timeshare sales with Pro Player.

• • •

Investigators say Franklin admitted to accepting land sale fees without a real estate license, and told them he was planning to shred a box of documents in his car to destroy evidence. Two employees, Tracy Cabahug, 31, and McLaughlin, 30, were charged with unlicensed telemarketing.

It's not clear how many people around the country were targeted.

An affidavit details how an Ohio woman with dementia was charged nearly $500, and how a 93-year-old woman was charged $199.99 and then was called 13 more times in a year. In many cases, the company refused to provide complete refunds.

"Telemarketing in general is one of the top complaints we get," Gillespie said.

Florida's older population is especially vulnerable, she said, but state agencies across the country and watchdog groups like AARP provide resources for members to avoid falling victim to fraudulent charges.

"If someone like my mother didn't have someone like me looking out for them, how much would they lose?" Fair said. "It could have gotten really bad."

McLaughlin, Cabahug and Franklin remained in jail Friday without bail. Cabahug was also charged with two counts of sale or delivery of a controlled substance and two counts of possession of a controlled substance. McLaughlin's charges include violation of probation for leaving the scene of a crash involving injury.

Franklin was also charged with violating his probation on a 2013 charge of operating an unlicensed business. Three of his charges are third-degree felonies, which can bring up to five years in jail. One is a second-degree felony and carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

If convicted, he would not be able to open another business in Florida.

Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.

>>fast facts

Cold calls that can be very cold

Tips from AARP and the Federal Trade Commission to protect yourself from telemarketing fraud:

• Get caller ID. Don't answer calls if you don't recognize the number.

• Keep your credit card and Social Security information to yourself during sales calls. If they ask you to "confirm" this information, it is likely a trick.

• Research offers with your consumer protection agency or state Attorney General's Office before you agree to pay.

• Don't be pressured by deadlines. If callers try to push you toward giving them information quickly, hang up.

Pinellas Park telemarketers ran magazine scam, investigators say 06/13/14 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2014 11:32pm]

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