Mr. Clean cleanses dirt in classified section
For 10 days last month an advertisement ran deep in the Tahoe Daily Tribune’s classified section. It offered to help people consolidate their debts by loaning them money which they could pay back in small monthly installments.
The ad was pulled, however, when the Tribune learned that the National Council of Better Business Bureaus considers it part of an elaborate scam perpetuated by a company that does not exist.
South Lake Tahoe’s Robert Hoskins is one of hundreds of people who nearly fell victim to the plot when he contacted The Spectrum Financing Group, a business ostensibly located in Savannah, Ga.
“I thought, ‘This is great,'” said Hoskins, whose image is still used to promote Mr. Clean cleaning products. “Believe it or not I went in to wash my face and shave, and the face in the mirror looked back at me and said, ‘Hey idiot make a phone call, this is too good to be true.'”
Hoskins called the Better Business Bureau in Savannah Monday and spoke to George Keating, who told him he was one of at least a dozen people who had called that day with suspicions about the company.
According to the Better Business Bureau, Spectrum Financing Group offers to provide people with large loans – which they can repay over a long period of time at relatively low interest rates – if they send an insurance fee to another company, Rockwell Insurance, in Ontario, Canada.
Requiring such a fee before loaning money is illegal in most states and in Ontario, but is common in what are called “advanced fee scams.”
In August 1999, a South Lake Tahoe couple lost more than $1,000 in an advance fee scam involving a company called International Financial Service, which promised them a low interest home loan, according to the South Lake Tahoe FBI office. Another South Lake Tahoe man did not send the company money but did give them his name and Social Security number, which they used to establish an 800 number in his name. International Financial Services used the number to reach out and scam other people, according to the FBI.
Officials from the Georgia State Insurance Commission said Canadian authorities had no record of a Rockwell Insurance Company operating in Ontario within the last eight years.
When Hoskins called the phone number in the paper, he reached a woman named Melissa Milano who told him the Spectrum Financial Group would loan him $25,000, which he could pay back at $205 a month for the next 30 years. Milano told Hoskins he would first need to provide them with credit information and send an international money order for $763 to Rockwell Insurance at an address in LaSalle, Ontario.
The address, however, is not a corporate office but a drop box at a commercial mail box business, according to the Windsor office of the Better Business Bureau.
“The only reason I did it is because I’m on a fixed income and I wanted to consolidate my bills into one small payment. I didn’t need ($25,000) but that is what they offered me,” Hoskins said. “I would be freaked out if I sent them my credit information and money.”
Milano called Hoskins twice Tuesday pressuring him to send the advance fee to Ontario as soon as possible, but he ignored her. “They are getting desperate now,” he said.
The address on documents Spectrum Financial Group faxed to Hoskins is also false according to Postal Inspector Glen Faulkner. The ZIP Code on their letterhead is not real, and Paul Stephens of the Better Business Bureau said their address on Abercorn Street in Savannah is a vacant lot.
Abercorn Street, which is also State Highway 204, is a broad tree-lined street that runs from the Savannah River through the city of almost 300,000 people. The address where Spectrum Financial Group claims they are located is a short distance from the local Better Business Office.
When they started receiving complaints 10 days ago, the Bureau’s Paul Stephens drove to where the offices should be.
“There was an empty lot, next to a closed Shell station, but no business,” he said. “Then there was a shopping mall but that was on the 7800 block.”
Only a small number of people who have called the Better Business Bureau have actually sent money to the address in Ontario, but Stephens said, “Those are the people who will call us in two or three weeks wondering where their money went.”
Several phone calls to Rockwell Insurance went unreturned. When Milano was contacted and asked for information about Spectrum’s lending process she refused to provide details.
Milano would not name the lending institutions they use to secure loans but said, “there are quite a few we get rates from.” She also said they have been in business for more than 25 years and have several satisfied customers in California.
When asked about Hoskins’ complaints to the Better Business Bureau Milano immediately put James Lomax on the phone.
“We haven’t heard about any complaints and all our clients are satisfied,” Lomax said.
He confirmed the company’s address on Abercorn Street and said he had lived in Savannah for many years, but could not describe the business adjacent to the building in which he claims to work.
“I’m not worried about that,” Lomax said of the investigation by the FBI and the RCMP into The Spectrum Financial Group. “We do not require any fees whatsoever.”
According to Lomax, it is the financial institutions they work with that require the fees be sent to Ontario.
At this point no one is sure where the money goes once it leaves the mail box in LaSalle but Earl Bailey of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that Canadian addresses are sometimes used for spurious mail drops.
“I wouldn’t say it is common but it isn’t the first time it has happened,” he said. “The problem is that most of the victims don’t live here. They all live in the United States.”
Requiring people to send money across international borders makes investigating the fraud more complicated according to Carol-Lynn Lepard of the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations, which will investigate the fraud in Canada.
“It makes it a lot more difficult to track them down and that is probably why they do it,” Lepard said. “These cross-border things are much more prevalent now than they were 10 years ago.”
The Ministry’s investigation will include a search for where the Spectrum Financial Group is operating.
“Canadian authorities are saying ‘What is wrong with these stupid Americans,'” Stephens said.
Officials at the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service were not available Tuesday to provide further information about their investigations.
“We are anxious to get on this because it is just sickening that people are doing this and doing it with impunity,” Keating said. “These people need to be shut down.”
The Savannah Better Business Bureau has received hundreds of calls about the company from across the country.
“I would imagine they are making a huge chunk of change everyday,” Keating said.
The Better Business Bureau encouraged people who have been fooled by this, or any other scam to contact them, the Postal Inspector, or the Federal Trade Commission.
The advertisement ran for nine days in the Nevada Appeal and in five other Lake Tahoe area newspapers – Lake Shopping and News Review, Record Courier, North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Tahoe World and Sierra Sun.
“If it is in our paper it’s in every paper in the country,” Hoskins said. “I am sick and tired of people fleecing the public, especially the elderly who are on a fixed income like me.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — El Dorado County officials are suspending use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but that will not impact the vaccination clinic being held Sunday and Monday in South Lake Tahoe.