Civil Accomplishments

Below are some of the Consumer Protection Unit's ("CPU") Civil achievements in 2017:

Automotive

Momentum Group – CPU filed a lawsuit against The Momentum Group, Inc. d/b/a Gwinnett Mitsubishi and Gwinnett Suzuki, alleging that the dealerships failed to apply for vehicle titles in purchasers’ names within the 30-day period required by Georgia law, and were unresponsive for weeks, or even months, when consumers tried to follow-up about the issue; failed to pay off liens on trade-in vehicles in a timely manner; sold vehicles without a valid Emissions Certificate, as required in 13 Georgia counties; and accepted payment from consumers for third-party products, such as extended service contracts and “gap coverage,” but failed to timely remit payment to the third parties, resulting in consumers being declined for benefits or having the service cancelled by the third-party vendors. Our office is seeking a permanent injunction restraining the Defendants from future violations of Georgia’s Fair Business Practices Act, requiring Defendants to provide restitution for affected consumers, pay civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, and pay recovery of fees and costs for this lawsuit.

Steve Rayman Chevrolet, LLC - CPU took action against Steve Rayman Chevrolet after learning it was distributing deceptive emails to consumers.  These mailers made numerous representations that created the impression that the email recipient was part of a select group of consumers specially chosen for limited offers, when this was not the case.  For example, the dealership asserted that particular consumers had been approved for and were guaranteed the purchase of a vehicle when, in reality, no bank had approved a loan for that consumer.  Furthermore, Steve Rayman admitted that those consumers who responded to the email but were denied credit approval for a purchase would be referred to Steve Rayman’s own used car dealership.  There, these consumers, who had been brought into Steve Rayman under the guise of having been approved and guaranteed to purchase a vehicle from a franchise dealership, would be offered a lease of an older vehicle from a completely separate entity. Other deceptive representations included that certain offers, such as discounts off the purchase price of a vehicle or special trade-in programs, were time-sensitive and of limited availability, when in reality, these programs and discounts were regularly offered at the dealership. Steve Rayman entered into settlement which required it to pay $22,500 in civil penalties and as reimbursement of investigative and legal expenses.

General Motors Company - Our office, along with the attorneys general of 48 states and the District of Columbia, took part in a $120 million settlement with General Motors Company (GM) over allegations that GM concealed safety issues in the company’s vehicles. In 2014, GM issued seven vehicle recalls in response to unintended key-rotation-related and/or ignition-switch-related issues, which affected over 9 million vehicles in the United States. The recalls involved a defective ignition switch which, under certain conditions, could move out of the “Run” position to the “Accessory” or “Off” position. If this occurs, the driver experiences a loss of electrical systems, including power steering and power brakes. If a collision occurs while the ignition switch is in the “Accessory” or “Off” position, the vehicle’s safety airbags may fail to deploy, increasing the risk of serious injury or death in certain types of crashes. The states alleged that certain employees of GM and General Motors Corporation knew as early as 2004 that the ignition switch posed a safety defect because it could cause airbag non-deployment; however, despite this knowledge, GM personnel decided the ignition switch was not a safety concern and delayed making recalls.  During this time, GM continued to market the reliability and safety of motor vehicles equipped with this defective ignition switch. Under the terms of the settlement, GM shall:

  • Not represent that a motor vehicle is “safe” unless they have complied with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety standards applicable to the motor vehicle at issue;
  • Not represent that certified pre-owned vehicles that GM advertises are safe, have been repaired for safety issues, or have been subject to rigorous inspection, unless such vehicles are not subject to any open recalls relating to safety or have been repaired pursuant to such a recall;
  • Instruct its dealers that all applicable recall repairs must be completed before any GM motor vehicle sold in the U.S. and included in a recall is eligible for certification, and if there is a recall on any certified pre-owned vehicle sold in the U.S., the required repair must be completed before the vehicle is delivered to a customer.

GM must also pay the participating attorneys general a total of $120 million, of which Georgia’s share is $2,720,327.

Debt Collection

Citi Management Group, LLC and Milton Kevin Barbee, Individually - CPU alleges that the business violated the Fair Business Practices Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) by engaging in the following practices in attempting to collect on a debt:  failing to provide the disclosures required by the FDCPA when initially contacting consumers regarding the debt; using harassing, threatening, and abusive language when speaking to consumers; falsely accusing consumers of having engaged in fraud or other criminal activity; threatening to initiate legal action against consumers when no such legal action is possible or intended to be taken by the company; threatening consumers with possible arrest or criminal legal action; and unlawfully communicating with consumers’ employers or other third-parties regarding the debt. In response to these allegations, the company and Mr. Barbee, its President and Owner, have agreed to cancel and cease collections on $5.1 million worth of consumer debt and to pay a $50,000 civil penalty, with $5,000 payable now and an additional $45,000 due if the business fails to comply with the terms of the settlement.

Contract Callers, Inc. (“CCI”) provides debt collection services for companies that are original creditors and for companies that purchase debt (debt buyers). CPU opened its investigation after hundreds of consumer complaints revealed that CCI was attempting to collect debts that were not owed and attempting to collect time-barred debt without notifying consumers of information that should be provided in connection with the debt. The company has entered into a settlement with our office, in which it has agreed to create and implement policies and procedures designed to ensure the accuracy of debts placed for collection by debt buyers and ceasing all collection of time-barred debt. In addition, CCI must pay a $15,000 civil penalty and an administrative reimbursement in the amount of $5,000.

Payday Loans and Title Pawns

Western Sky Financial, LLC and CashCall, Inc. - The Office’s multi-year legal battle against payday lenders Western Sky Financial, LLC, CashCall, Inc. and related entities has concluded in a settlement providing over $40 million in monetary relief to Georgia consumers. The settlement came on the heels of an October 31, 2016, ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court that out-of-state Internet lenders are subject to the State’s Payday Lending Act, which prohibits a lender from making loans of $3,000 or less unless the lender is licensed to lend in Georgia or under federal law.  Georgia law caps the interest rate of such loans at 10%; however, Western Sky and its affiliates sold over 18,000 loans to Georgia borrowers bearing interest rates of 140% to 340%, and collected over $32 million in interest and fees from those consumers since 2010. The settlement requires Western Sky and its affiliates to pay $23.5 million in consumer restitution, to cease all collections and to forgive all outstanding loans, which will provide an additional $17 million in loan relief to Georgia borrowers. Additionally, the defendants must pay a $1 million civil penalty to the State and $500,000 as reimbursement for the State’s attorneys’ fees and costs. The defendants are also prohibited from engaging in any further lending activities that are not in compliance with Georgia law. Among the numerous settlements reached in Western Sky-related cases to date, this settlement is the largest in the nation, representing a nearly dollar-for-dollar return of all illegal interest and fees paid by Georgia borrowers.

First American Title Lending of Georgia, LLC    entered into a settlement with our office in response to allegations that it engaged in unlawful practices that violated the Fair Business Practices Act and the Georgia laws governing title pawns. CPU alleges that when some of First American’s customers defaulted on their loans, the company sued them for the outstanding principal, interest and fees, which is not allowed in pawn transactions. The company also allegedly threatened consumers with arrest warrants, which it lacked the authority to issue. In addition, First American violated Georgia law by failing to prominently include the word “pawn” or the words “pawn transaction” in its advertisements and by using the term “loan” in its advertising of the business. The settlement requires First American to:

  • provide $196,573.69 in consumer restitution and return of titles;
  • dismiss all pending lawsuits against consumers in which it attempted to hold them personally liable for principal, interest, fees and/or other costs associated with a pawn transaction;
  • have any judgments entered against such consumers set aside;
  • pay $25,000 in penalties and fees to the State;
  • refrain from engaging in deceptive practices, including threatening consumers with actions it does not have the authority to take, such as the filing of arrest warrants; and
  • clearly and conspicuously represent that it is offering pawn transactions, and not mischaracterize its offerings as loans.

Travel Companies/Timeshares

Fractional Property Services, LLC, Joshua A. Wright, Individually, and Matthew Delatorre, Individually – Fractional Property Services (“FPS”) and its owners Wright and Delatorre offered to market vacation properties for consumers to rent their timeshares.  Consumers stated that the business claimed to have a renter for their timeshare, but required the consumer to pay an upfront fee.  Consumers further stated that the business failed to rent or sell their timeshare as agreed and refused to refund the paid fee.  The Defendants entered into a Consent Judgment and Injunction in which they have agreed to cease operations and to pay $118,429 in restitution to consumers who purchased services and $305,000 in fees and penalties. 

Theresa Charles, Individually, and d/b/a Cultural Compass and d/b/a SANKOFASPIRIT - Cultural Compass is a tour operator that offers to coordinate “educational excursions to Africa and the Diaspora.” Multiple consumers complained that after paying in advance for travel packages, the business canceled the trips shortly before the departure date and failed to issue refunds as promised. Although Cultural Compass was administratively dissolved as of December 31, 2015, our investigation revealed that its sole owner and registered agent, Ms. Charles, has been doing business as Cultural Compass to solicit consumers for trips as recently as November 25, 2016. Ms. Charles also operates SankofaSpirit, which is described on its website as “a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to providing cultural and educational programs and services that focus on Africa and the African Diaspora.” The organization was administratively dissolved as of December 31, 2015. However, Ms. Charles has failed to maintain 501(c)(3) status with the IRS since 2013. Additionally, the Georgia Secretary of State charity license for SankofaSpirit, Inc. lapsed in 2011, after which the license was never renewed. Yet, website and social media accounts indicate that Ms. Charles is still operating and holding SankofaSpirit out as a valid 501(c)(3) non-profit.  Ms. Charles has entered into a settlement requiring that she permanently shut down Cultural Compass, permanently cease doing business in the State of Georgia in any capacity related to travel sales or services, and refrain from soliciting business or accepting donations as SankofaSpirit until obtaining proper licensing to operate as a valid 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in the State of Georgia. In addition, Ms. Charles is required to pay consumer restitution totaling $8,791.49, as well as a civil penalty of $1,000.

Other

Our office filed a complaint against Marvelay, LLC d/b/a Spot Reservation and d/b/a Rushcube, Erran Yearty, Individually, and Asta Quattrocchi, Individually, alleging that the Defendants, operating through numerous websites, represent themselves as different companies that provide a variety of recreational activities, such as sky diving, hot air balloon rides, helicopter tours and airplane flight lessons, at locations across the United States.  In fact, however, the companies listed on the websites do not really exist, and the Defendants themselves are not activity providers. Rather, they sell events to consumers and then proceed to book those events through third-party vendors. The Complaint alleges that consumers believed that they were dealing with the companies that actually provided the activities when they purchased an adventure product from the Defendants.  In addition, it alleges that the Defendants: accepted payments from consumers but did not secure reservations for the activity that was purchased; confirmed reservations and accepted payment for activities that were to occur at a specific day and time, when the actual vendor did not have an opening for that day and time; advertise that activities are available in specific cities or locations, when they are not, sometimes necessitating that consumers travel for hours to participate in the activity they purchased; and that when third-party vendors cancel reservations due to weather, Defendants are unresponsive or unable to provide new reservations or provide the paid-for service. We are seeking a permanent injunction restraining the Defendants from future violations of Georgia’s Fair Business Practices Act, restitution for affected consumers, civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, and recovery of fees and costs for this lawsuit.

Alarm Protection Georgia, LLC and Alder Holdings, LLC - These Utah-based alarm companies market extensively throughout much of Georgia. Our office alleges that they made false representations to induce consumers – many of whom were elderly or disabled - into entering into long-term contracts for Alder security systems by, among other things:

  • representing that they were employed by or partnered with a consumer’s existing security company and that they were there to “upgrade” the consumer’s service;
  • representing that the consumer’s existing monitoring company was no longer in business or that they were taking over for that company;
  • representing that the level of criminal activity in the consumer’s neighborhood had increased and that the sales representative has been referred by law enforcement officers who live in the consumer’s neighborhood and/or that police officers living in the area had recently purchased the same alarm system from the companies.

The Complaint alleges that beginning in 2016, the companies started using electronic contracts in a further attempt to deceive consumers. According to the Complaint, consumers who were asked to sign an electronic contract were frequently handed an electronic device with only a signature page appearing. Consumers claim they were not required and/or permitted to scroll through each page of the electronic contract before consenting to execute the contract, and often did not have email addresses, computers, devices or printers that would allow them to receive, view and/or print electronic documents. These practices prevented consumers, especially elderly consumers who were not technologically adept, from fully understanding the terms of the contracts or even, in some cases, realizing that what they were signing was a contract. The Complaint also alleges that these companies willfully and blatantly violated numerous consumer protection laws requiring door-to-door sales companies to provide consumers with copies of contracts they sign and to clearly inform consumers verbally and in writing that they have three business days to cancel the contract. The Consent Judgment includes the following key terms:

  • A judgment against the companies in the amount of $500,000.00 for civil penalties and costs of litigation.
  • A permanent injunction prohibiting the companies from engaging in acts and practices that violate the Fair Business Practices Act
  • A requirement that the companies must provide restitution and other relief to specified consumers including reimbursement of contract payments and other fees, cancellation of contracts, forgiveness of defaulted contract balances and reversal of negative credit reporting.
  • A requirement that the companies must notify consumers, in writing, of automatic renewal provisions contained in contracts.
  • An eighteen (18) month monitoring period during which the companies must provide additional consumer remedies as directed by the State.

Western Union Company – Our office, along with 47 other states and the District of Columbia, participated in a multistate investigation which focused on complaints of consumers who used Western Union’s wire transfer service to send money to third-parties involved in schemes to defraud consumers. Examples of fraud-induced transfers are the “grandparent scam,” lottery scams, employment opportunities, such as “secret shopper” positions, and “romance scams.” Western Union allegedly operated its money transfer service in a manner which facilitated the above-described fraud by failing to stop transfers that it knew or reasonably should have known were fraud-induced and paying out transfers to people it knew or reasonably should have known were using the system to obtain money through fraud. The settlement requires Western Union to develop and put into action a comprehensive, anti-fraud program designed to help detect and prevent fraud victims from using Western Union to wire money to scam artists. Western Union has also agreed to pay a total of $5 million to the states for the states’ costs and fees. In addition to this settlement with the states, Western Union also settled claims related to fraud-induced transfers with the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Department of Justice. As part of those related settlements, Western Union has agreed to pay $586 million to a fund that the Department of Justice will administer to provide refunds to victims of fraud-induced wire transfers nationwide, including Georgia victims. 

Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc. – Our office, along with the attorneys general from 49 states and the District of Columbia, reached a $13.5 million multi-state settlement with Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (BIPI) regarding its alleged off-label marketing and deceptive and misleading representations made in the promotion of four of its prescription drugs: Micardis®, Aggrenox®, Atrovent®, and Combivent®. The States alleged that BIPI: (1) misrepresented that its antiplatelet drug, Aggrenox®, was effective for many conditions “below the neck”, such as heart attacks and congestive heart failure, and that it was superior to Plavix® without evidence to substantiate that claim; (2) misrepresented that Micardis® protected patients from early morning strokes and heart attacks and treated metabolic syndrome; (3) misrepresented that Combivent® could be used as a first-line treatment for bronchospasms associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); and (4) falsely stated that Atrovent® and Combivent® could be used at doses that exceeded the maximum dosage recommendation in the product labeling and that they were essential for treatment of COPD.  The Consent Judgment requires BIPI to ensure that its marketing and promotional practices do not unlawfully promote these prescription drug products.  Specifically, BIPI must: 

  • Limit product sampling of the four drugs to health care providers whose clinical practice is consistent with the product labeling;
  • Refrain from offering financial incentives for sales that may indicate off-label use of any of the four drugs;
  • Ensure clinically relevant information is provided in an unbiased manner that is distinct from promotional materials; and
  • Provide that requests for off-label information regarding any of the four drugs are referred to BIPI’s Medical Division.

Heritage Cremation Provider, LLC and Legacy Funeral Services, LLC - CPU initiated an investigation of Heritage Cremation Provider and Legacy Funeral Services (“HCP”) after receiving a referral from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Board of Funeral Services (“The Board”). The Board had determined via its own investigation that HCP was representing on its website that it was a funeral establishment providing crematory services in Georgia, when, in fact, it had not obtained the required license, is not located in Georgia and does not perform cremations.  HCP’s website is set up so that consumers who do an Internet search such as “Atlanta cremations” are directed to the HCP website, and the word Atlanta appears in several places in the website representing that the services are available and performed in Atlanta.  The same result occurs whether the consumer searches “Macon cremations” or any other city in Georgia. After being hired by consumers to handle cremations, HCP contracts with third-party crematories in Georgia to perform the services.  HCP represents to consumers that it performs the cremations.  HCP does not disclose any affiliation with third-party crematories and does not disclose to consumers that HCP’s charges are more than what HCP pays for the crematory services, in violation of the provisions of the Federal Trade Commission “Funeral Rule.” HCP has been the subject of enforcement actions in several other states for the same unfair and deceptive business practices.  HCP has entered into a settlement with our office requiring it to pay a civil penalty in the amount of $50,000 and reform its sales and advertising practices so that it is in compliance with the law.

Luv-Green Solutions, Inc. and James Ellis, Individually - Luv-Green Solutions, Inc. and owner James Ellis advertise and sell water filtration systems to consumers throughout Georgia and Tennessee.  CPU began investigating them after receiving consumer complaints about deceptive postcards sent on behalf of the company by the marketing firm Direct Market Concepts LLC (“DMC”), which entered into a settlement with CPU in September 2016 based on its role in soliciting business for Luv-Green Solutions. DMC allegedly disseminated postcards and utilized telephone scripts that represented that the company was a package delivery service.  However, consumers claimed that when they called the number on the postcard, they were informed that the “package” was a complimentary bottle of laundry detergent.  Furthermore, consumers could only receive the bottle of detergent if they permitted a Luv-Green representative to visit the consumer’s home to provide a water analysis.  Consumers indicated that, once a Luv-Green representative arrived to analyze the consumer’s water, the representative proceeded to engage in a high-pressure sales presentation for a water filtration system.  While James Ellis maintains that DMC – not Luv-Green – developed and disseminated the postcards to consumers, Mr. Ellis was, in fact, aware of the content of these postcards and continued to pay DMC to disseminate these postcards on his behalf. Luv-Green and Mr. Ellis have entered into a settlement with our office, requiring them to comply with the Fair Business Practices Act, ensure that all marketing materials contain certain disclosures, and pay a civil penalty of $20,000.

Tiffany Cawley a/k/a Tiffany Brown, Individually and Daniel Ivy Brown, Individually and d/b/a Southern Frills a/k/a Southern Frills Boutique - Southern Frills is a clothing boutique that advertises and sells its goods via its website. CPU alleges that after accepting payment from consumers, the company refused to deliver the goods when promised and did not provide consumers with an option to either consent to a delay in shipping, or to cancel their orders and receive refunds.  Our office issued a Civil Penalty Order requiring the defendants to immediately cease and desist from conducting business in violation of the Fair Business Practices Act; pay a $300,000 civil penalty; and issue refunds to the affected consumers.

Hoegger Supply, Inc. and Harold D. Lauer, Jr., Individually – Hoegger Supply is a Georgia corporation that sells farm products to consumers nationwide through its website. CPU alleges that the company violated the Fair Business Practices Act by taking consumer orders and payments but failing to provide part or all of the order and failing to provide refunds accordingly. The company and its principal officer Harold Lauer have entered into a settlement, in which they have agreed to pay $72,842.53 in restitution to consumers. 

Fitz Office Systems, Inc. and Oscar Calix, Individually - CPU alleges that this office-supply business misled customers into believing that the supplies it sold are the same brand as what the customer usually uses; misrepresented its prices and the quantity of office supplies subject to the sales offer; and failed to transmit its telephone number and name to the caller identification service.  CPU issued a Cease and Desist Order requiring the company to immediately refrain from conducting business in violation of the Fair Business Practices Act.

Ryanick Enterprises, Inc. d/b/a Rooms 1-2-3 - The company operates as a retailer of home furnishings, mainly furniture and mattresses.  CPU alleges that the company violated the Fair Business Practices Act by making multiple sales and advertising misrepresentations pertaining to its going-out-of-business sale (“GOB sale”), including:

  • Using terms such as “ordered sold” and “public notice” when, in fact, the sales was not being conducted pursuant to any court order;
  • Using terms such as “total liquidation” and “wall-to-wall selloff . . . when it’s gone, it’s gone”, while at the same time planning to augment its inventory with new merchandise;
  • Representing that the GOB sale will occur on specific days and/or for “4 DAYS ONLY” when, in fact, the sale is running indefinitely; and
  • Representing that consumers need to “like and share” social media posts in order to receive discounts when, in fact, discounts are available to the general public.

The company has entered into a settlement in which it agreed to comply with the Fair Business Practices Act and to pay a $2,000 civil penalty.

Jenny Lynn Kirsten Pierce, d/b/a Swoon & Co. - Pierce operates as an online retailer of home goods through social media pages under the name "Swoon &. Co." Consumers complained that the business failed to ship goods that were ordered and failed to issue refunds for goods not delivered. During the course of CPU’s investigation, Pierce filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, but did not list the State or consumers as creditors in her bankruptcy schedules, nor did she notify CPU of her bankruptcy filing. Pierce continued to operate Swoon & Co. after she filed her bankruptcy case and consumers continued to file complaints regarding Pierce's failure to ship the goods they had ordered and to pay refunds for goods not received. CPU has resolved the investigation through a settlement and a negotiated bankruptcy order declaring all monetary obligations contained in the settlement as non-dischargeable. The terms of the settlement require Pierce to pay outstanding restitution obligations in the total amount of $56,522.42 and a civil penalty in the amount of $18,800.

Stubby’s Heroes, Inc. and Johanna Falber, Individually – Stubby’s Heroes is a Georgia nonprofit corporation that Ms. Falber owns and operates to solicit charitable contributions for pet-related causes.  In 2015 the company ran a donation campaign that it promoted through the crowdfunding site YouCaring.  The company asked for donations to create a $3,500 reward that would eventually be given to anyone who could provide information that led to the arrest in an animal cruelty case being investigated by the DeKalb County Police Department.  The company said that if no arrest was made within 90 days, all donated funds would go to a grant for spay/neuter services with the Lifeline Animal Project in Atlanta.  The company collected over $6,500 in donations, and no arrests were made in the animal cruelty case.  But once the campaign ended, the company ceased all communications with its donors and did not provide another update for roughly two years, at which time it announced it would fund seven separate spay/neuter operations, amounting to approximately $600 in surgery costs, which is only a fraction of the $6,500 that the company received in donations. CPU’s investigation revealed that Ms. Falber deposited the entire $6,500 donation amount into her personal bank account and used those funds for personal expenses, contrary to the campaign representations. The company and Ms .Falber have entered into a settlement requiring them to pay a civil penalty of $6,500 and to fund the grant to LifeLine Animal Project as they represented (which, accounting for fees, amounts to $6,306.59). 

Pink Barre, LLC is a health spa that CPU began investigating after a consumer complained that the business did not utilize membership contracts and had refused to provide a refund for services that were paid for in advance. CPU’s investigation revealed that the company violated the Fair Business Practices Act by failing to use written contracts and attempting to enforce a contract without having a signed statement certifying that a copy of the contract is on file with the Attorney General and is in compliance with all relevant legal requirements. In resolution of these allegations, the company has signed a settlement requiring it to pay the State $2,000.  

Maa Shell, LLC - Maa Shell entered into a settlement with CPU to resolve allegations that it violated the Fair Business Practice Act by engaging in price gouging.  Specifically, CPU alleges that Maa Shell sold gasoline during a state of emergency at a price higher than the price at which it was sold immediately prior to the declaration of a state of emergency.  The settlement requires the company to pay a $500 penalty.

MEDIATION ACCOMPLISHMENTS

In 2017, CPU’s Mediation Team assisted over 409 Georgia consumers with business disputes, resulting in consumer savings in excess of $1.59 million.