Two Defendants Charged For Nationwide Online Marketing Scheme That Fraudulently Enrolled Customers In Credit Monitoring Monthly Subscription | USAO-SDNY

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Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Michael J. Driscoll, Assistant Director in Charge of the New York Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced the indictment of MICHAEL BROWN and ANDREW LLOYD for wire fraud charges in connection with a nationwide online marketing scheme to post fake advertisements for rental properties across the United States on a classified advertisements website.  The purpose of the scheme was to fraudulently induce potential customers to enter their credit card information on credit monitoring websites owned by BROWN and obtain a credit report under false pretenses in order to automatically enroll the customers in a monthly membership for credit monitoring services.  BROWN was arrested at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on October 27, 2022, after he arrived on a flight from Mexico and was detained pending trial.  LLOYD was arrested earlier today in Pennsylvania and will be presented in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania later today.  The case is assigned to United States District Judge Katherine Polk Failla.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “Online scams have spiraled out of control, to the point where nearly every online interaction must be approached with weariness of its validity.  Nevertheless, as alleged, Michael Brown and Andrew Lloyd gave their victims no opportunity to suspect a scam as they enrolled thousands of victims to a nearly $30 a month fee using seemingly reputable websites and deceptive practices.  I commend the efforts of this Office and our law enforcement partners in prosecuting these scams that have become a near-daily frustration, and today’s arrests show that we will continue to zealously investigate consumer fraud.”

FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Michael J. Driscoll said: “As alleged, the defendants operated a complex scheme, using phony advertisements to trick victims into unknowingly enrolling in a monthly credit monitoring service.  The FBI remains steadfast in our efforts to investigate and eliminate online scams and hold the fraudsters accountable in the criminal justice system.”

According to allegations in the Indictment filed in Manhattan federal court:[1] 

MICHAEL BROWN owned and operated Credit Bureau Center, LLC, formerly known as MyScore LLC (“MyScore”), a Delaware limited liability company which provided credit reports and credit monitoring services via the websites eFreeScore.com, FreeCreditNation.com, and CreditUpdates.com, among other sites (collectively, the “MyScore Websites”).  ANDREW LLOYD was an affiliate that worked with a co-conspirator (“CC-1”), the owner of an affiliate marketing company, to drive potential customers to the MyScore Websites.  In affiliate marketing, a seller of goods or services such as MyScore uses other firms or individuals known as “affiliates” to market the seller’s goods or services by attracting customers to the seller’s websites.  BROWN contracted with CC-1 in order to increase customer traffic to the MyScore Websites.

From at least in or about 2014 through at least on or about January 10, 2017, BROWN, LLOYD, and CC-1 engaged in a nationwide online marketing scheme to post fake advertisements for rental properties across the United States on a classified advertisements website (the “Advertising Website”).  The purpose of the scheme was to fraudulently induce prospective renters to enter their credit card information on the MyScore Websites and obtain a credit report under false pretenses in order to automatically enroll them in a monthly membership for credit monitoring services.

The advertisements used in the scheme typically contained photos of the rental properties and showcased properties in desirable locations for below-market prices in order to attract interest.  The advertisements were posted for rental properties in metropolitan areas across the United States, including, among other locations, New York City, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Diego.  In actuality, the rental properties did not exist as advertised or were not actually available for rent through the posts on the Advertising Website.  The advertisements also did not disclose the specific address of the rental properties but instead contained a contact email address inviting prospective renters to contact the property owner if they were interested in the rental property.

When prospective renters inquired about the rental properties posted on the Advertising Website by responding to the advertisements, they received a form email purporting to be from the property owner requiring the prospective renter to obtain a copy of their credit report, and referring the prospective renter to one of the MyScore Websites to obtain a credit report, before scheduling a tour of the property.  The form email typically described purported features of the advertised property and falsely informed the prospective renter, in substance and in part, that he or she was the second person to respond to the advertisement, that the first responder no longer needed the property, and that the property owner was ready to lease the property to the prospective renter with flexible terms and had just completed all new renovations.

Once a prospective renter clicked on the hyperlink in the form email from the purported property owner to obtain a copy of their credit report, the prospective renter was directed to the “landing page” of one of the MyScore Websites.  The landing page of the MyScore Websites typically featured a large banner that stated, in substance and in part, “Get Your Free Credit Score and Report” with significantly smaller text referencing an unspecified “7-day trial” and a “Monthly membership of $29.94 automatically charged after trial.”  In order to get the credit report, prospective renters were required to enter identifying information and credit card information through a series of webpages.  Once the prospective renter entered credit card information, the prospective renter was charged $1.00 and was automatically enrolled in a monthly membership for credit monitoring services with recurring charges of typically $29.94 per month until the membership was cancelled.

When prospective renters responded to the purported property owner asking to schedule a tour of the advertised property now that they had a copy of their credit report, there was typically no response, as the property was not actually available for rent as advertised and the scheme had succeeded in fraudulently generating a monthly membership subscription for MyScore.  Many prospective renters who obtained a credit report from the MyScore Websites as a result of the scheme did not realize that they had been automatically enrolled in MyScore’s membership until they discovered the monthly charges on their credit card statements.  Some prospective renters also had difficulties canceling the membership when they contacted MyScore’s customer service department.

BROWN, LLOYD, and CC-1 continued to execute the scheme through at least on or about January 10, 2017, despite numerous complaints during the course of the scheme from customers and consumer organizations about the fraudulent nature of the rental advertisements on the Advertising Website, the automatic enrollment of customers in MyScore’s monthly membership with recurring charges without their knowledge, and the difficulties in cancelling the monthly membership. 

In total, the scheme caused over approximately 2.7 million unique visits to the MyScore Websites and generated approximately $6.8 million in revenue from approximately 169,000 customers who were automatically enrolled in MyScore’s monthly membership for credit monitoring services through the scheme.

*                *                *

BROWN, 37, who was residing in Mexico, and LLOYD, 30, of Beaver, Pennsylvania, were each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of wire fraud, which each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The maximum potential sentences are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendants will be determined by the judge.

Mr. Williams praised the outstanding investigative work of the FBI.  Mr. Williams also thanked the Federal Trade Commission for their assistance with the case.

The prosecution of this case is being handled by the Office’s Complex Frauds and Cybercrime Unit.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Sagar K. Ravi is in charge of the prosecution.

 


[1] As the introductory phrase signifies, the entirety of the Indictment and the description of the Indictment set forth herein constitute only allegations, and every fact described should be treated as an allegation.



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