Monday, June 15, 2009
You answer the phone, and it's a recorded message:
"By now you should have received your written note regarding your vehicle warranty expiring. This call is to give you a final opportunity to extend coverage before it is too late. Press '1' now to speak to a warranty specialist regarding your options on your vehicle."
Upon pressing "1," you are transferred to a "warranty specialist" who lies to you, telling you he is affiliated with an automobile dealer or manufacturer and that your warranty is up. And before long, you may have agreed to put $450 down on an extended service contract that costs up to $3,000, the balance to be paid in monthly payments.
Or maybe you hang up — only to be called again. And again. Because more than a billion of these automatically dialed "robocalls" have been sent to cell phones, government offices and even 911 operators.
What's surprising is that these billion-plus calls allegedly stemmed from three companies — Transcontinental Warranty, Voice Touch and Network Foundations.
And behind those three companies are four human faces: Christopher Cowart, James and Maureen Dunne, and Kamian Kohlfeld.
Court documents filed last month in a Federal Trade Commission civil lawsuit against the three companies allege that their illegal calls have resulted in at least $10 million of ill-gotten gains since 2007. The FTC alleges that the firms' deceptive practices violated the Federal Trade Commission Act by misrepresenting or omitting material facts in their sales pitches, and that they violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule by "flatly ignoring" rules that prerecorded calls disclose the identity of the seller "promptly, and in a clear and conspicuous manner," according to court documents.
Those documents contained few details about Cowart, the Dunnes and Kohlfeld. But a FOXNews.com investigation of the four reveals misleading online resumes, lengthy criminal histories, claims of innocence all around — and a great deal of finger-pointing.
Meet the main players behind the alleged scheme:
— Christopher D. Cowart, 47, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., owns Transcontinental Warranty, a Delaware company based in Fort Lauderdale. A graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University, Cowart likes to read, travel and play golf in his spare time. He also maintains a Facebook page and uses a LinkedIn profile to advertise his latest business ventures.
— James A. Dunne, 36, of Daytona Beach, Fla., owns Florida-based Voice Touch with his wife, Maureen. Dunne has a checkered legal past, including charges of filing a false report of a bomb that landed him six months in jail in 1991. He was most recently arrested in 2001 for indecent exposure, but those charges were later dismissed.
— Maureen E. Dunne, nee Maureen Geisen, is James Dunne's wife. Little information can be found pertaining to her.
— Damian P. Kohlfeld, 35, of Valparaiso, Ind., is the owner of Network Foundations, which is based in Chicago. Kohlfeld allegedly supplied the technical know-how for the alleged telemarketing scheme employed by all three companies. The Arizona State University graduate has more than a decade of experience writing software and building computer networks. His latest hit, according to the FTC, was a "spoofing" device that tricked caller ID systems.
As a direct marketer of extended auto warranties, Cowart acknowledged in an interview with FOXNews.com that he used the Dunnes' telemarketing firm, Voice Touch, to "transfer leads." He says he was contacted by James Dunne last spring to enter into a business relationship.
But Cowart says he was "undeniably misled" by Dunne, because Dunne told him that the caller information provided to Transcontinental was for consumers who registered to be solicited.
"We were told that it was co-registration data," Cowart told FOXNews.com. "We gave him a test and he delivered. We had no reason not to believe what was said."
Shortly thereafter, Cowart said, his employees began reporting angry consumers who said they were one of 160 million Americans registered on the federal Do Not Call registry. Cowart says he terminated his relationship with Voice Touch in December.
"We never had that before," Cowart said of the Do Not Call-related complaints. "But with the volume of calls we were making, some were going to get through."
Cowart flatly denied the allegations of illicit sales and marketing tactics.
"We've admitted to doing nothing wrong as to how we sold it, nor will we ever," he told FOXNews.com. "The fact is, 140 employees were put out of work and we hope to restart operations with the blessing of the FTC, as it were."
Cowart has some falsehoods on his LinkedIn profile, but he says they're not his doing. The profile currently lists Louisiana State University's Paul M. Hebert Law Center among his education experience, although registrar officials say they have no record of him being there.
"I didn't put that up there," Cowart said. "I never go on LinkedIn."
While working with technology supplied by Kohlfeld's Network Foundations, James Dunne, who owns Voice Touch with his wife, Maureen, claimed to have done more than $40 million worth of dialing for extended warranty companies, including more than 1 billion calls for Missouri's National Auto Warranty Services, according to court papers.
That company, now doing business as US Fidelis, is one of several firms sued by former Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon last year for misleading sales pitches.
Philip Jehle, the former chief financial officer and vice president of operations at US Fidelis, told FOXNews.com that he raised concerns about James Dunne and Voice Touch in June 2007, eight months before the company says it stopped using the Dunnes' firm.
"I did everything I could to try and dissuade them from this and they refused to do anything," Jehle said of US Fidelis management. "I could not stand by knowing that the company was continuing to violate the [National Do Not Call Registry and the FTC Act]."
"These calls were placed at random, they had no idea who they were calling," Jehle told FOXNews.com. "They would just blast whole area codes. It was really egregious."
Jehle, now a self-employed accountant, resigned in October 2007. US Fidelis sued him regarding that departure, but it dropped the case two months later, he said.
In a statement to FOXNews.com, US Fidelis officials characterized Jehle's account as that of a "disgruntled" former employee.
For his part, Dunne said he has cooperated with FTC investigators and denied any wrongdoing.
"This is like a divorce, people will throw mud, point the finger at the next guy," he said outside of his Florida home. "I was completely hands-off, just putting this guy with this guy."
Dunne — whose criminal history includes charges of trespassing, battery, filing a false report of a bomb and firearm violations — declined to answer specific questions regarding the FTC's allegations.
"All you can do is comply and hopefully the truth will set you free," Dunne said. "I'll take my licks for whatever they find that I did wrong, but at the end of the day, I think all I did was broker long distance. The truth will come out."
Kohlfeld, principal of Network Foundations and the technological guru behind the massive scam, according to FTC officials, also claims to be the wrong target of the probe -- although investigators say he earned nearly $5 million for his services from December 2007 through January of this year. Kohlfeld's "spoofing" technology allegedly duped caller identification systems to display bogus, untraceable numbers, leaving consumers without recourse to file complaints.
Like Dunne, Kohlfeld, who served less than five months for a robbery conviction in 1993, claims he merely followed orders.
"I have spent the last 15 years writing software and designing/building computer networks for several companies," Kohlfeld said in a statement to FOXNews.com. "Some of these companies are on the Fortune 500 list. Throughout my adult life, I have held positions of great responsibility and have always faithfully executed those responsibilities."
FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan said it's "uncertain" what fines await the defendants if found guilty, but since a federal court issued a restraining order in the case that froze the companies' assets last month, followed by a preliminary injunction last week, FTC Chairman Jon
Leibowitz said he's sure consumers are noticing.
"I have never seen an issue that resonated so much," Leibowitz told FOXNews.com. "When I was at my daughter's soccer game, people came up to me and said, 'Thank you so much for stopping these guys.' It resonates because this is all about protecting Americans' privacy."
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