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A New Look for ‘Mystery Shopper’ Scam

Goleta and Santa Barbara Home to Boiler-Room Cons


FEDS CRACK DOWN: The economy may be cold, but the telemarketing rackets are red hot, thanks in part to the usual suspects operating out of Goleta.

Yes, Goleta. Scammers in recent years have found South La Patera Lane a comfy oasis. When one outfit is shut down by the feds, another pops up.

Case in point: Commerce Planet had 96 employees nestled among legit businesses in a huge building off Hollister Avenue across from the Santa Barbara Airport. The boiler-room hucksters were hawking “free” Internet kits, supposedly to help people sell products online to sites like eBay. But once Commerce Planet got hold of customers’ credit card numbers, many found themselves billed $59.95 every month, and it was very, very hard to get off the sucker list, the Federal Trade Commission said.

Barney Brantingham

The FTC shut the outfit down and ordered principals Michael Hill, Aaron Gravitz, and Charles Gugliuzza to pay fines totaling around $1 million and also assessed each of them about $18 million to redress consumer losses, but that’s been suspended “due to their inability to pay,” the FTC said.

As I’ve written before, Goleta–Santa Barbara is a favorite of illegal telemarketing scammers, partly because of easy access to a plentiful supply of low-income students as well as other employees willing to close their eyes to the fact that they are helping to cheat the public. It’s also a nice community to work in. You’d prefer Bakersfield, maybe?

MYSTERY SHOPPER SCAM: Sadly, Santa Barbara is currently getting a rotten rep thanks to foreign telemarketers using a fake Eastside address as they reel in gullible folks who think they can make money as “mystery shoppers” by just checking on their local stores. Crooks in places like Greece and Spain are taking out ads around the U.S. and taking the old fake-mystery-shopper ruse to a higher level of scamming the unwary.

Typically, if you answer the help-wanted ad, you are sent a check for, say, $1,900 and told to deposit it and quickly do an “assignment.” You take out your expenses and profit, then “test” places like Western Union by sending the rest of the money to someplace like Canada. But soon your bank will give you bad news: The check you deposited bounced. You’ve been fleeced.

Rick Copelan, Santa Barbara Better Business Bureau honcho, says one midwestern bank told of having about $100,000 deposited in one week by victims who’ll never see it again. He heard of a family trying to live on $715 a month that, in desperation for income, was hooked by the mystery-shopper swindle. The family ended up out $1,000 they couldn’t spare.

There are some real mystery shopper jobs out there, but don’t pay anyone promising to line you up with one.

HI, I’M WITH THE FTC: And have I got a deal for you! You’ve won $250,000 in a lottery. All you have to do is send us folks at the Federal Trade Commission $10,000 to cover the taxes.

Yep, conniving telemarketing scammers have even resorted to pretending to represent a federal agency supposedly supervising the lottery. Don’t you believe it, even if your Caller ID displays the FTC name and the area code for Washington, D.C. Hang on to your dough and report the scam to the real FTC (ftc.gov).

REST OF THE STORY: When the Santa Barbara News-Press learned that Rep. Lois Capps, long on owner Wendy McCaw’s lengthy enemies list, owed taxes on around $41,000 in unreported rental income, it front-paged the story, with photo. You had to jump over to read the rest of the story in a separate section to see that Agro-Jal, the family farm one-third owned by Capps’s Republican opponent, Abel Maldonado, has been told by the IRS he may owe as much as $4.2 million in back taxes. The amount is still in dispute.

Marilyn Horne
Click to enlarge photo

Henry Grossman

Marilyn Horne

CARMEN JONES: I remember seeing the 1954 movie Carmen Jones, the all-black version of the opera Carmen, starring the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge. Little did I know that the voice behind Dandridge was that of 20-year-old Marilyn Horne, white and a budding opera star in her own right. Horne, now 78, a cancer survivor, heads the Music Academy of the West’s voice department. Horne told of her film role in a recent Music Academy stage interview by KUSC radio host Alan Chapman, which I was lucky enough to attend. Dandridge was a fine actress and also an excellent singer, and she was nominated for an Oscar for the Carmen role. But parts were few and far between for black actresses then. She died at 42 with $2.14 in her bank account.

FIESTA $$: In answer to questions I’ve received, according to Fiesta officials, food booths at the two mercados are either operated by nonprofits or by businesses supporting nonprofits.

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This column was amended on August 10, 2012, to clarify that the amount owed to the IRS by Agro-Jal is in dispute, and that as Abel Maldonado is one-third owner, he would owe only one-third of whatever amount is finally settled on.

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