The Federal Trade Commission has stopped what it's calling an online Yellow Pages scam that has bilked consumers out of $14 million over the last three years.
A federal judge has temporarily stopped and frozen the assets of the Canadian-based operation, accused of targeting small businesses and churches across the country, hundreds of them right here in Illinois.
The FTC says the accused scammers typically make phone calls pretending they are verifying contact information to update or confirm an online listing that doesn't exist.
"At the end of the call they don't think they've purchased anything, the don't think they've agreed to anything new," says FTC Attorney Guy Ward.
Ward says consumers generally think nothing of the call, until the invoices start rolling in. The very real looking bills range anywhere from $500 to $1,000 - all of them bearing the familiar "walking fingers" logo. The scammers are accused of using threats and scare tactics to get unsuspecting consumers to pay up.
"They add interest, late fees and legal fees," Ward says, "then threaten to ruin your credit. Not just the business or the church, but the person who took the call."
People like Adam Thompson-Harvey.
"It was a cold call out of nowhere," Thompson-Harvey says. The patient coordinator at a Michigan Avenue doctor's office says he was shocked when a $500 invoice came across the office fax machine, with his name attached to it. Then came the call from his finance department.
"They said you're in trouble! And the first thing I thought was I didn't do anything wrong," Thompson-Harvey recalls.
Things got even more interesting, he says, when the doctor's office tried to dispute the bill.
"They say we have a recording of one of your employees saying that they authorized it."
Thompson-Harvey heard that recording, he says, with his voice clearly edited and out of context.
"They're pretty clever because they cut the yes's and no's and put it out of context, making a recording and played that back to finance."
The FTC has filed a complaint accusing three men of running shell companies in various states to dupe and bilk victims. Two of the defendants have been arrested in Montreal. A lawyer for one of them wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but told NBC 5 investigates a motion for dismissal has been filed.
The FTC intends to permanently stop the illegal practices and make the defendants return victims' money. The scheme has generated more than 13,000 complaints. The next court hearing is scheduled on Jan. 15.