Two defendants have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges for allegedly victimizing Spanish-speaking consumers nationwide by posing as debt collectors seeking money the consumers did not owe. They and the corporate defendants they controlled have been barred from further violations of federal law involving debt collection.
According to the FTC’s complaint, Maria Oceguera, her daughter Dulce Rickards (aka Dulce Ugalde and Dulce Ruiz), and others sold an English-language course, “Inglés con Ritmo.” They advertised the course as free except for a shipping and handling fee. Several years after the defendants stopped selling the course, they tried to collect money, typically $900, from consumers who had purchased or inquired about the course. An overwhelming majority of the consumers who were contacted owed nothing, and yet the defendants routinely engaged in a variety of deceptive debt collection practices. At the FTC’s request, in 2007 a federal judge stopped the operation and froze the defendants’ assets.
Under the settlement, the defendants are barred from violating the FTC Act by misrepresenting that they’re collecting on a valid debt, that they’re attorneys or represent attorneys, that they will take action they cannot take legally or do not intend to take, and that nonpayment of an alleged obligation will result in arrest, imprisonment, or loss of property or wages. The settlement prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting the consequences of paying or not paying a debt, making misrepresentations in order to collect a debt, and misrepresenting or omitting any fact material to a person’s decision to buy or use a product or service.
The defendants are banned from violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) by using falsehood or deception to collect a debt, indicating that they’re attorneys or represent attorneys, and representing that nonpayment will result in arrest, imprisonment, or loss of property or wages unless the action is lawful and they intend to pursue such action. They are also prohibited from threatening to take an action unless it’s lawful and they intend to do so, and from using a business name other than the collector’s real name.
Oceguera and Rickards are also barred from violating the FDCPA by collecting an amount not expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law;harassing consumers, including causing a telephone to ring or conversing with consumers to annoy or abuse them; and failing to notify consumers of their right to dispute and obtain verification of their debts and to obtain the name of the original creditor.
In addition, the court ordered the same permanent injunctive relief against the companies controlled by Oceguera and Rickards: Tono Publishing; Promo Music; and Tono Records, dba Tono Music; and Professional Legal Services.
The settlement with Oceguera and Rickards includes a $1,186,754 judgment, all but $50,934 of which is suspended based on their inability to pay. The full judgment will be imposed if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition. The settlement also contains standard record-keeping provisions to allow the FTC to monitor compliance with the order.
By a 4-0 vote, the Commission approved the filing of the consent decree in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. On May 1, the court approved the FTC’s settlement with Oceguera and Rickards. On May 27, the court entered a separate final judgment and order for permanent injunction against the corporate defendants.
NOTE: This consent decree is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission by the defendants of a law violation. A consent decree requires approval by the court and has the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the consent decree and order are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/complaint.shtm. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,600 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
(FTC File No. X070034)