Lawmaker hangs up on immigrant phone scam

By James DeWeese

Peralta's constituents had responded to signs and stickers plastered on lamp posts and utility poles across the five boroughs promising immediate, high-paying jobs, credits cards despite poor records and apartment rental prices that were simply too good to be true.

When they called, they got recorded messages with false, misleading or readily available information, referrals to banks that supposedly offered easy credit but no credit credit-card application and instructions to visit superintendents at buildings where no apartments were available. They also got an average $30 charge on their phone bills for the useless information.

“If it sounds too good to be true, don't call,” Peralta advised.

The would-be workers, credit-card users and apartment dwellers had fallen prey to a scam that caught the attention of state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, after what Peralta described as months of weekly pressure from his office and that of fellow Democratic Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera (D-Bronx).

Spitzer's office obtained a court order on Feb. 19 freezing the assets of three local companies and their principals who, it contended, had illegally duped thousands of customers in the New York City area into paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in telephone fees, a spokeswoman said.

One of the accused, Angelina Gonzalez, head of Astoria-based Celestial Communications Corp., operated two 540 information lines enticing would-be callers with promises of immediate employment with pay between $18.75 and $22.50, the spokeswoman said.

Callers to Gonzalez's 540 line received a list of businesses and unions that might be hiring. Investigators from the attorney general's office determined that of the 14 jobs and unions, only one was currently hiring: Conway Stores was looking for a security guard at $7 an hour, according to the spokeswoman. The other two companies were based in Brooklyn.

The companies are charged with using false or misleading advertising and with failing to disclose the total costs, Spitzer's office said. Fees for the calls were generally around $30, and many were not informed of the cost before being charged, the attorney general said.

“These defendants deliberately target consumers who are least able to afford their charges,” Spitzer said in a press release. “New Yorkers looking for jobs, credit and apartments should not have to fall prey to scammers.”

Pending Gonzalez's scheduled March 18 court date, Assistant Attorney General Geneva Johnson agreed to release $3,500 of the $55,000 it froze in exchange for an immediate halt on all advertising.

Rivera's chief of staff, Guillermo Martinez, said immigrants were disproportionately victimized because it is more difficult for people who do not speak English fluently to contest the charges and fees.

Martinez said the blame does not rest solely on the shoulders of the 540 operators. The telephone companies that issue the numbers are at least partly to blame, he said.

“They could have made a bigger stance on this issue,” Martinez said in a telephone interview. “They know what the real deal is on these numbers.”

“540” numbers – along with the 550, 970 and 976 prefixes – are reserved by local phone companies in New York for pay-per-call service providers that assess charges in much the same way the better-known 900-area-code fee numbers do.

Rivera has introduced legislation that would ban these information service number with local prefixes, requiring that all pay-per-call services be offered through the readily identifiable 900 area code.

Peralta, who took more than 100 complaints about pay-per-call charges said he supported the legislation “100 percent.”

Verizon is one of the companies that currently licenses the local pay-per-call numbers. Under an agreement with the state Public Services Commission, Verizon was required to bill customers on behalf of the 540 services, taking a per-call commission to cover accounting costs.

“[But the fees] we're talking about [are] in the cents here,” said Verizon spokesman Daniel Diaz Zapata. “It's not a money maker for us.”

Citing potential damage to the company's image, Diaz said “we're as much of a victim here because we were required to do this.”

He said the company is cooperating fully with the attorney general's ongoing investigation. “Our books are open.”

In addition to permanently banning the businesses and their operators from running fraudulent 540 hotlines, Spitzer's office is also seeking restitution for consumers who were fraudulently billed and asked the court to levy $500 fines against them for each case of false advertising and failure to disclose the cost of the call in advertisements, the spokeswoman said.

“Now the predator has become the prey,” Peralta said in a telephone interview.

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